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October 5, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Snakes, Planes, and Automobiles

Look: no-one ever thought Snakes on a Plane was going to be any good. I didn't think so. That's not why I watched it. I watched it because it had Sam Jackson on a plane full of snakes. I expected prominent cursing, scenery-chewing, and completely outlandish reptilian doom.

But instead, I got a movie that's mostly about people building luggage forts and sucking venom out of each other, while Sam Jackson was criminally underused. His most aggressive anti-snake action was a tazer. The man who educated us on the path of the righteous man restricted to non-lethal weaponry? What a copout.

Perhaps worst of all, he wasn't given any real room to build up a real Sam Jackson head of steam, so his triumphant line (in which he expresses his weariness with snakes, planes, and the combination of the two) goes completely to waste. From this point on, all directors casting Mr. Jackson are required to watch Deep Blue Sea:

That's how you do it. Sadly, I can't find a copy of the complete clip (in which Jackson explains that he killed the other survivors of a horrible mountaineering accident), which is a moment of brilliance in an otherwise unexceptional horror-comedy. More like that please. Less like Snakes on a Plane.

June 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Dark of the Matinee

Although he is a ridiculous figure, there is something about Uwe Boll's movies that's a cut above the average B-movie. I think it's the star power, actually. He's not much of a director for the A-list actors that his tax loophole payoff attracts, but even on a bad day many of his leads outshine the typical horror-movie fodder. It's especially apparent when his movies show up on Sci Fi, where a big pitch is apparently professional sibling Stephen Baldwin in "Stan Lee's Harpies."

Speaking of which, I wonder how that goes over in the evangelical community after Baldwin's much-publicized conversion. I know he's supposed to be the cool face of Christianity for the home-schooled crowd, but I have a hard time imagining that Army of Darkness ripoffs are really what they consider "godly" entertainment. Then again, I enjoyed Bubba Ho-Tep, so I'm really in no condition to judge anyone.

So today's Tivo'd diversion is Boll's Alone in the Dark, which corrals Tara Reid and Christian Slater together for an on-set disaster nearly as horrifying as the idea of Tara Reid and Christian Slater together off-set. The guide gives it 1 1/2 stars. I can hardly wait.

0:00 Already, we're looking at a long chunk of on-screen text and narration, explaining something about a lost civilization and experiments that "merge man with creature." Sounds like a Mercer Mayer book gone horribly awry. A flashback establishes that the experiments were performed on orphans (except for one--I smell foreshadowing!) with the assistance of a weak-willed nun. Isn't that always the way?
0:05 Christian Slater wakes up from the flashback, unshaven and unkempt, on an airplane. Some kid tells him that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Slater tells him that being afraid of the dark keeps most of us alive. I don't even know what that means. During a taxi montage, he voiceovers that he wasn't just scaring that kid for nothing, but that what you don't see can kill you. He's Edward Carnby: cliche hunter and child abuser. John Stossel in a trenchcoat.
0:09 The taxi montage leads directly to a car chase, the best moment of which is when Slater tells his cabbie to duck into a farmer's market and they immediately crash into a truck. The pursuing cabbie rams them, then gets out of the car and runs away--so he can jump down on Slater from a bridge. Why he needed the altitude is not entirely clear. The resulting fistfight ends in an ice factory, which I think exists only so that Boll can do a bullet time shot through a block of ice. There's also a lot of shoving going on, which is the mark of lazy action movie direction--if the bad guy shoves random people around to establish his evilness, he's clearing a pretty low bar. He could at least shoot an innocent bystander before Slater impales him on a convenient metal spike.
0:12 Tara Reid as a museum curator. I sense a great disturbance, as if thousands of casting directors cried out, and then were suddenly silenced. The last time I saw cheesecake this unaccountable was Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist for that James Bond movie.
0:20 On a boat, Reid's archaeologist boss has extracted some kind of evil basement refridgerator from the ocean. It's made of gold, which sets the boat's captain off in a capitalist lust. The archaeologist muses that nowadays "we don't even remember why gold is valuable in the first place." Perhaps to point out the stupidity of the statement, the captain slugs the archaeologist and cracks open the vault to get at the sweet, sweet precious metals inside. Sadly, the only thing in the case is an unseen evil force that slaughters the crew. Around the world, said force also activates some people that I guess are "man merged with creature." One of them shoves someone around on the way out of the house. Clearly, the height of malignancy.
0:26 Christian Slater has a flashback to establish that his orphanage was the center of these experiments, but he was somehow immune. After making some calls, he heads back to the orphanage, where he's greeted by the same nun. Long-lived, these sisters. Slater's driving an SUV in these sequences, by the way, so I guess being a crusty psychic detective pays pretty well.
0:33 As if to make sure that even the dimmest viewer gets the plot, Slater's contact at the paranormal Bureau 713 has a thirty second lunch with him, just long enough to establish that yes, all the disappearances are from his old orphanage. Alone in the Dark is actually filled, so far, with scenes that only last 30 seconds or so, just long enough to deliver their one line of exposition. Normally, I'd say that this kind of choppy, incoherent storytelling was the fault of the network's chopping it up to fit into two hours with commercials, but this is a Uwe Boll movie. Again, here's where he differs from most low-talent filmmakers, because most of them don't have the budget for so many location shots. It costs a lot to make a movie this badly.
0:36 Tara Reid and Christian Slater meet up at the museum. They hug, and then she punches him in the face. Score one for Tara Reid! Slater obtains forgiveness by handing over a paranormal artifact that he's been lugging around for the last 20 minutes. Jewelry makes things all better. Reid adds unintentional hilarity to her impression of a brilliant art expert by mispronouncing "Newfoundland" in her description of its history.
0:38 Remember that old horror movie where the creepy wooden tribal doll runs around a museum with a butcher knife? That's about ten times more disturbing than the giant bug that attacks the museum now. Especially when the SWAT team from Bureau 713 drops in, led by Stephen Dorff, and the bug just runs away. Another thirty-second conflict: done. This movie even makes The Relic's museum monster look terrifying.
0:54 Having returned from his disastrous boat trip, the archeologist injects himself with blood extracted from another giant bug, which he's keeping in the broom closet. Dude, there are easier ways to get high. Meanwhile, Slater's bureau friend explains that the monsters disrupt electricity (hence the darkness of the title and the flickering lights whenever they show up), but not flashlights, because "the shorter the path for the electricity, the less disruption." That's convenient, and also completely incoherent. He also passes on some bullets filled with light-producing resin, because they're allergic to sunlight. The producers of Underworld contemplate suing, but settle for watching Kate Beckinsdale in tight leather again.
0:59 Tara Reid shows up at Slater's loft apartment for no discernable reason, where he is passed out on a filthy mattress, and has sex with him, again for no discernable reason. I'm confused, and slightly unnerved. One or both of them should probably go get tested.
1:05 From sex directly to dubious archaeology--just like real life! The costume designers have obviously decided that putting little indie-girl glasses on Tara Reid will make her look smarter. Shockingly--and I say this as a guy who's totally got the hots for the indie glasses--it doesn't work at all. With thirty seconds elapsed from the last plot point, evil orphans and another bug now attack. The SWAT team drops in again. Why don't these guys ever use the door? Who's going to pay for all those windows? The resulting shootout resembles the first scene from Equilibrium, with lots of strobe-light gunflare in pitch darkness, although it goes on for about twice as long and includes a truly terrible nu-metal soundtrack. I have to admit, it does bear a strong resemblance to a video game.
1:18 Obligatory scene in which the characters prepare for the big finale, which looks like it will take place in a mine. While we wait for something interesting to happen, I'd like to say that I never actually played the Alone in the Dark games. I had a demo once, back in the late 80s, of the first one, but it only gave you one room, an attic, and had one monster, who burst in through the window a la a hellhound from Resident Evil. This movie seems to be based on the rebooted fourth game in the series, which ditched the offbeat adventure genre for forgettable survival horror. I think they would have been better off sticking to the setting from the earlier games, because monsters are almost always cooler in the 1930's.
1:34 Standing in a room wallpapered in human skulls, Christian Slater mutters, "I don't think we're supposed to be here." Subtle. Meanwhile, giant computer-animated bugs tear the marines outside the mine into little bits. For a movie that was previously edited like a tribute to ADD, Boll now finds the patience to linger for a long, long time on these shots. All the marines die. It's all very expensive and tasteless. Most of it is a ripoff of Aliens, except for the parts that are a ripoff of Starship Troopers.
1:47 Double cross! Triple cross! No-one cares! Tara Reid's boss reveals that he's one behind the experiments, and proceeds to open a door into a giant cave of darkness using the artifact from an hour and fifteen minutes ago. Now that it's assembled, it looks like a candleholder from Pier 1. Stephen Dorff tosses a knife into the archeologist's chest and then he stays to set off a bomb while the others run for the surface. I don't know why they're so desparate to get outside, since there's just a bunch of monsters and dead marines out there.
1:54 Wait, what? Slater and Reid climb out of the mine and end up just outside the orphanage which is in broad daylight. So I'm confused, because all of the previous scenes took place at midnight. Maybe they've been climbing for 12 hours. When they leave the orphanage, the city is evacuated according to the onscreen titles. Again, I'm not really sure when that happened. Slater voiceovers that the people have been wiped off the face of the earth, just like the ancient civilization. This word "evacuation," I do not think it means what you think it means.

Final verdict: if we were ranking Uwe Boll movies, this is much better than House of the Dead. It's also better than Bloodrayne, but it only manages that by stealing virtually every moment from much better movies. Neither, of course, is anything to be proud of. There's also no real charisma on exhibit here, so you can't even feel sorry for its stars. The thing is, every month Sci Fi broadcasts monster of the week movies that are three times as good as this, with a fraction of the budget. If anyone should be profiting from illicit tax money, it's those guys. If that means supporting Stephen Baldwin's career, I think we should take that risk.

April 30, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Descent

The shorter version of The Descent goes something like this:

Six women have a really bad trip in a cave, and then the C.H.U.D.s show up.

Indeed, there are lots of places where the movie shines: it's well-acted, solidly directed, and written intelligently with a set of strong and interesting female characters--a rarity in horror. But its real strength is that it maintains a constant level of tension and dread for practically the entire film, yet doesn't overstay its welcome. It does this by layering and gradually introducing new stresses, starting with a vague but definite unease between the main characters. Once in the cave, that unease is magnified by the claustrophobic confines and some clever tricks of the light--at times the characters are lit as normal for a film, however unrealistic, but in other cases the frame is almost entirely black, with only a few outlines and bobbing headlamps visible. It's only when the audience gets adjusted to the dangers of spelunking that The Descent introduces deformed cave monsters to the mix. With a running time of less than 100 minutes, there's just enough time to develop the scares, but not enough for "villain fatigue."

All in all, The Descent is one of the best horror movies I've seen in a very long time. It's not particularly original, but it displays a mastery of the genre and pacing that similar niche horror films (including the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes remakes) would do well to study.

January 22, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Rayne O'er Me

In which I liveblog Bloodrayne. It's Uwe Boll: how bad can it be?

Elapsed TimeNotes
0:00 The movie opens with a series of faux-Renaissance frescoes, depicting the characters in the movie. I would love to have been the guy who got to photoshop Ben Kingsley into a fresco.
0:01 Hey, it says that Meat Loaf's in this! But his last name's credited as "Aday." Is that really his real name? Or is it a joke, like "A meat loaf aday keeps something at bay?" These are deep thoughts.
0:06 Kristanna Lokken as the half-vampire is being used as a freakshow attraction. They make her drink lamb's blood. It gives her a blood mustache, like a very morbid "Got Milk?" commercial.
0:08 I was hoping that Ben Kingsley being in this movie was just a sick joke, but there he is in white pancake makeup and a get-me-out-of-here-please lack of emotion. He's the only person in this movie with an actual accent, even though it's set in Europe during the 1600's. If I pretend not to know that fact, it's like I'm watching the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
0:12 I'll say this: Boll must have hired a decent DP for this. It's much more competently shot than House of the Dead. But he still can't direct actors, and he's emphasized that fact by hiring the least expressive actors he could find. Putting Michael Madsen and Michelle Rodriguez together in a scene is like watching the animatronic Presidents at Disneyland perform standup, except the robots are more charismatic.
0:22 Boll keeps doing these low establishing shots. I guess they're supposed to look very slick, but it's more like he's hired midgets to do his steadycam work.
0:31 There are movies based on videogames, and then there's this movie, which follows gaming logic to its disastrous end. Rayne sneaks into the basement of a monastary to steal something for some ridiculous reason, sees a sleeping guard wearing a cross, and then spies a cross-shaped hole in the wall. A normal person would think that maybe those both have to do with the monestary decorating motif, what with it being a religious institution and all. But Rayne knows that it's actually a lock for a secret passage. It's embarrassing that she leaps to this conclusion, and even stupider when she turns out to be right.
0:34 At some point my TiVo is going to catch up with realtime, and I'm going to have to watch those terrible Galactica promos with the emo rock. The exec who okay'd that must have been the same guy who decided to run Bloodrayne as a Saturday night movie. On the other hand, I'm actually watching it. Touche, tasteless NBC producers. Touche.
0:46 Meatloaf's not phoning it in. I respect that.
0:54 If I were a vampire, I don't think I'd put stained glass windows in my bloodsucking orgy lair. I also wouldn't let Michael Madsen and some generic minion just walk right in, swords drawn. But that's just me. Still, the movie does seem to prove my instincts correct.
1:08 Oh, look! Michelle Rodriguez is angry! That's different. And now for a training montage. I love a good training montage. Remember in Army of Darkness, when Ash trains the townspeople to fight with spears, all in unison? And then later on, when they face the skeleton warriors, they do the exact same moves, like it's a synchronized dance routine? That was awesome. I wish I was watching that movie instead.
1:24 All of the swords in this movie look like they were just cut from sheets of aluminum. They don't have any edge at all. It looks really silly, like they're fighting with large butter knives. I'm reminded of this because the characters have gone to some blacksmith to get weapons. He's also got holy water just sitting around on the shelves. I wonder if holy water has a sell-by date. I'd hate to use it on the undead, only to find out that it'd gone bad.
1:30 Rayne gives her cross medallion to Madsen's generic assistant as protection. Did anyone ever explain if other holy artifacts also work on vampires, or is it just the cross? In Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the protagonist figures that the aversion to crosses is some sort of bizarre superstitious reflex left over from life, caused by self-loathing. The Jewish vampire is repelled by the Torah. Does that mean that atheist vampires are repelled by science textbooks and biohazard symbols? So much for Cobb County.
1:40 Every time someone gets on horseback in this movie, suddenly we get lots of helicopter shots. It's like Boll watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and thought "Hey, I could do that."
1:43 Why doesn't anyone in this script use contractions? Is that supposed to make them seem like thespians? I'm going to have to try that sometime. "I think I will walk the dog," I'll say. I feel more dramatic already.

Also: thespian? I don't remember dating within my gender.

1:51 Last fight scene between Kristanna Lokken and Ben Kingsley. I can't believe I just wrote that. Why did he agree to this? He was Ghandi! Ghandi! I'm at a loss for words, frankly.
1:58 It's over! It didn't make any sense, but it's over. Looking back, it could have been worse. I mean, yes, the dialog, plot, special effects, acting, and set design were all terrible. But some of the camerawork wasn't too bad. If Boll is set on the subject matter, maybe he could just direct video game commercials instead of movies. But then, there's probably no tax loophole in that.

September 20, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

High Tension

To indicate exactly how bad High Tension is will require what we now call "spoilers," although as one critic noted, the movie itself is already beyond spoiled in the traditional sense of the word. It is, in fact, rotten.

A French slasher flick walking a fine line between incompetent homage and lazy theft of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, High Tension centers on a law student named Marie, who takes a trip with her friend Alexia out to the friend's family farm in rural france, where they'll study for what I assume is the French equivalent of the bar exam. It becomes obvious fairly early on that Marie has an unrequited crush on Alexia, and that Alexia is completely oblivious.

But first: what's this, as the girls arrive at the farmhouse? Why, it's a filthy, heavyset figure in an old rusty truck, having some sort of sexual congress with a severed female head, which he dumps out the window when the task at hand reaches completion!

Subtle. I'm guessing a lot of people are going to stop the disc right there, but I've watched Audition. I've seen worse.

Before long, of course, the killer breaks into the house for no apparent reason, butchers Alexia's family, and kidnaps her. Marie narrowly escapes detection and sets off to rescue her friend. At this point, High Tension is derivative and a little strained, but not beyond the horror films it so obviously apes. Director Alexandre Aja knows his way around a camera, even if he doesn't have a lot of original ideas--there's the obligatory gas station scene, the unhelpful phone call to the police, and a power tool straight out of Chainsaw.

Where the movie goes horrifically wrong, and where I will be spoiling what little narrative creativity that High Tension boasts, is in its "twist ending." See, once Marie manages to catch up with the killer, gruesomely dispatch him, and rescue her would-be romantic interest, it is revealed that she was the killer all along. What had appeared to be a flawed but sympathetic description of a strong lesbian protagonist turns out to be a sociopathic sexual deviant.

Even ignoring the gay-bashing incongruity of this Fight Club ripoff, it's just incredibly poor writing. Although the "Keyser Soze" reveal has been around for decades, it still manages to work in films that use it as the final piece of a puzzle, causing viewers to say "ah-hah! now it all makes sense!" Whereas High Tension's twist actually destroys what little narrative coherency that it had left. If she's the killer, then where did that big, rusty truck come from? How does she drive two cars at once? Why did the gas station attendant (and indeed, every other character) treat the killer as an entirely different person? Who called the cops? And why did the psycho spend so much time hunting through the house for her, when there wasn't anyone else to hunt for?

We could try to come up with psychological explanations for these glaring plot holes, but it hardly seems worth it. Clearly, the filmmakers didn't make the effort. I'd recommend you do the same, and leave this one unwatched.

June 17, 2005

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Movie Review: Basket Case

Horror movies and I go back a long ways. One of my first cinematic memories is Night of the Living Dead, gleefully rented by my father. He also introduced me to The Fly in its original recipe, instead of the far inferior extra crispy Cronenberg variety. As I got older, I watched a lot of newer and older monster/slasher flicks, until now I find myself drawing closer to a critical mass and a Unified Field Theory of Horror. It leaves me with a lot of fairly bizarre references and Netflix recommendations for Manos: The Hands of Fate.

I don't remember, exactly, when or where I saw Basket Case for the first time. I just know that it stuck in my head ever since. It's the charming story of a young man and his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin (who rides around in a basket, hence the title) on a quest for revenge on the doctors who cut them apart. I know! That premise is movie gold! And if you're like me (i.e. you love watching terrible horror movies) the rest of the film will deliver.

I like to think I was a pretty bright little kid, but obviously there are some problems with the film that I missed the first time around. For one thing, the scream shots are way, way too long. Sometimes the movie spends several minutes watching a victim thrash around, covered in fake blood and wrestling with a lumpy rubber mutant. During that time, the victim shrieks over and over again, joined in a hideous chorus by the voice of the creature, who hoots like a mentally-handicapped baboon. It's like Children of a Lesser God meets Children of the Corn.

Another fun item to watch for is the special effects of the deformed twin. Although it's typically played by a giant rubber puppet, the filmmakers also used a set of rubber gloves for POV shots and stop-motion for some especially comical cutaway scenes. Each of these presentations looks slightly different from the rest, creating maximum cognitive stress when their scenes are placed side by side. The filmmakers are clearly quite proud of their creation, and they give him far too much screentime, breaking the cardinal rule of monster flicks ("The monster should remain hidden until the climactic confrontation, either through artful editing or clumsy staging.").

In fact, the best part of the movie may come halfway through when the de-freakified main character begins seeing an obnoxious receptionist. A fit of jealousy sends the sideshow twin into a stop-motion tantrum, and when the former attempts to reassure the latter of his loyalty we are treated to a lavish flashback of their mutual childhood. We see their father rail against his misformed spawn, the funeral for the mother who died in childbirth, and the operation that split the twins in twain. It is here that we finally get a name for the boy with the rubber face, Belial. The non-deformed brother's name?

Duane.

Now Belial, that's a good name for a movie monster. It refers, if I'm not mistaken, to a demon of the pit. I approve of that kind of Judeo-Christian baggage. Other good monster names with fine heritage are Lilith and Moloch. Duane? That's the mechanic that charges you $24 for a windshield wiper, when you came in to get your brakes fixed. What kind of parent names their kids (even the deformed and conjoined ones) Belial and Duane?

But maybe that's the intention, because the flashback clearly intends to paint Belial as a tragic anti-hero for the rest of the film. We see him take his revenge on his father and hatch a plan to find the doctors that tossed him out with the post-surgery trash. He's even shown as a young freak-to-be, cuddled up listening to bedtime stories by the fire (oh, would that I were exaggerating). The point is somewhat undermined when, flashback over, Belial cops a lengthy feel off Duane's sleeping girlfriend. In one of the few sympathetic emotional moments of Basket Case, Duane reacts by attempting to throw Belial out the window but ends up plummeting with his twin to the pavement below. Cue the credits and take it away, maestro!

All of this together would make a great B-movie experience, but if you find Basket Case on DVD now, you'll probably be able to watch a short documentary by the original filmmakers on the film's set locations. They're unbelievably stereotypical New York City sleazebags who are immeasurably proud of this film and its sequels, wandering around the landmarks they had filmed so long ago. Despite their credentials, they're even barred entry from the hotel where most of the action takes place, resorting to shouted obscenities through the building intercom and then offering half-hearted excuses.

It made me proud to be an American.

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