Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 2: Where the Oddities Are

The second week of Horrorfest ’09 continued one of my most eclectic mixes of horror features yet. I had the opportunity to see two new releases in theaters and took in another four films in from the comfort of my own home, usually in the dark with headphones on to shield the rest of my family from the screams of terror coming out of the Blu-Ray player.

I kicked off the week with my first theatrical visit of the month. I was a week behind the curve, but “Zombieland” was a surprise hit with audiences. I caught the second wave of what was an enjoyable ride, if not particularly scary. Read my official full-length review here.

“Zombieland” is the offspring of a new subgenre of horror that has popped up in recent years—the horror comedy. The most influential of these recent horror comedy entries is probably the British film “Shaun of the Dead”. In fact, the director of “Zombieland” sited “Shaun of the Dead” as the major influence over his film. Certainly “Zombieland is a very American take on the material tackled by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in that cult hit, which was featured in Horrorfest 2005. As is typical of Americans, there is no attempt to understand zombies in “Zombieland”. They are merely set decoration for the story about the humans and the things they want and their pining for how great life used to be. It’s really quite a statement on our society.

For some reason zombies seem to be the creature of choice for this new horror comedy movement. Most likely this is because the slow, mindless, lumbering, flesh eaters really call into question just why they should be scary by their very definition. They’re easy to kill. They’re predictable. And they’re stupid. They’re everything a high school clown could hope for in a laugh muse.

Here at Horrorfest we’ve looked at such great zombie-coms as “Fido”, about a retro American society that uses zombies as servants; “Black Sheep”, a genius New Zealand parody of the genre where sheep are the zombies terrorizing the farmlands; “Zombie Honeymoon”, a hilarious independent production that originally aired on Showtime about a groom who is infected as a zombie on his honeymoon and must resist eating his new bride; the middle section of the movie “The Signal” showed us how a zombie-type of victim might try to understand what has happened to him; the very dark British flick “Severance” showed us the ultimate British office worker’s nightmare (zombies need not apply). Next week we’ll watch another, the mockumentary that does what “Zombieland” didn’t, really look into the lives of zombies in “American Zombie”.

“P2” is a small but effective film. Flying in under the radar upon its release in the late fall of 2007, this two person thriller works by keeping everything very simple. Basically, a security guard, who has developed a surveillance crush, stalks a workaholic executive on Christmas Eve. The roles are effectively played by Rachel Nichols as the victim and a typically creepy Wes Bently as her severely warped stalker. The entire production takes place within a New York City parking garage and is ingenious in its plotting to keep the victim trapped there.

The movie comes from a script by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever “High Tension”, and the not so clever Hollywood remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Mirrors”. His previous films have thrived (and died) on their overblown direction. Perhaps this one succeeds through the more straightforward treatment by first time director Franck Kahlfoun. Whatever the difference, this thriller strikes the right notes and keeps the audience in tension throughout. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in intensity.

I’ve already written in some detail about my concerns over the cinema of brutality that is embraced by movies like “The Strangers”. Those thoughts can be read in my previous Horrorfest report here. What I didn’t mention in those passages was how good it is to see a modern horror movie embracing patience in its direction and plot development. Too often today horror films are edited like some sort of MTV video, like the director is trying to break some sort of edits per minute record. As if more cuts equals more thrills. But in horror it should be just the opposite, since so much good horror is psychological.

“The Strangers” is a perfect example of patience in horror filmmaking. The movie takes its time introducing the audience to its two victims, a couple coming home late at night from a wedding. Their evening did not end well, and both are uncomfortable with each other. This brings tension into the story before any of the horror elements are even introduced. Smart filmmaking.

Then when their tormentors in masks arrive to torture them first psychologically, then physically. The sound work in this movie is phenomenal. I think the scariest moments come before any of the assailants are seen. Although their entrance onto the stage is also a work of horror art, as one lone figure appears silently in the background of a shot. If not for the subtle lighting used to highlight the figure, the audience—like the victim—might just glance by the figure as if nothing were there. It’s one of the creepiest visual you’ll ever see in a film. “The Strangers” may cross some lines of voyeuristic taste, but it does so with artful and frightening filmmaking.

As a child I was terrified of Maurice Sendak’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”. I never got sent to my room without dinner, because I did not want to travel to the land where the wild things are. I didn’t care that they ended up being a fairly friendly family. The point of the book was well taken by me. I wanted to stay with my own family. But I could just imagine my bedroom turning into a jungle. I think that was the creepiest part.

Interestingly enough, Max’s bedroom never turns into the jungle where the wild things are in the movie adaptation. I suppose that is one of the many aspects of the movie with which many would-be fans are taking umbrage. But like many movie adaptations of books, especially very short children’s books, the film must stray from its source material. Heck in the book the wild things all look different but pretty much all act the same. No individual personalities stick out. This is an area of the story the movie greatly improves upon. You can read my full-length review of the movie here.

No, this is not a horror movie, but it deals with life issues that are scary for kids. This emphasis on the theme of the book rather than the action of its story is probably what has turned many viewers off to it. But that makes it a stronger story than in its original medium. And hey, a movie where a monster puts a little boy in her mouth but doesn’t eat him really belongs in Horrorfest.

Another non-horror horror movie to mark this year’s festival is “Wristcutters: A Love Story”. Get this… As you may have guessed from the title, this is a love story. It’s a love story that takes place in a sort of purgatory world where “everything is pretty much the same as in life, but just a little worse.” This is the place where suicides go after their success. Our hero killed himself after his girlfriend broke up with him. When he learns from a recent suicide that she may have killed herself in grief of him, he sets out to find her.

It is an odd, quirky and intriguing set up that has fun exploring this theoretical afterlife. Unfortunately, its love story is an all too typical pairing of people who don’t notice the obvious attraction they share toward each other except as the conveniences of the plot dictates them to.

Although again not technically horror, a movie about the afterlife of suicides not only deals with dead people, but it’s slightly disturbing. With a name like “Wristcutters”, it was begging to be on the Horrorfest schedule; and despite its shortcomings, it’s disturbing in a cute and funny way.

And that brings me to one of the more disappointing entries on this year’s Horrorfest lineup. Since when did storytellers forget what the vampire myth is all about? Haven’t these people read Bram Stoker? What saddens me most about “30 Days of Night” is not that it is a disappointing vampire movie, but that it was first an apparently inept vampire comic book? Can it be that even in the literature stage of this story’s life it was just as oblivious to vampire lore as it is in its film incarnation?

I’ve never read the comic book. I certainly hope the filmmakers stupidly chose to leave all of the sex out of their adaptation. Without any sex, this is simply a trapped monster movie. With it’s isolated location and limited cast count versus an army a vampires, this is just an inferior version of “Aliens”, without even the corporate corruptions commentary. Vampires are supposed to represent the sexual sins of man and our on going individual battle with our own morality. The vampire is supposed to be a monstrous incarnation of lust. Here they’re just monsters.

But forgetting all the abandoned allegorical issues of man’s blood and sex lust, is “30 Days of Night” at least a good scary monster movie? Not really. It starts out good, but once the vampires descend upon the snowbound arctic town of Barlow, there is little mystery and less bite than the filmmakers would like you to believe. It’s really just a slaughter of the few towns’ people that are there. That’s not scary. Now, one vampire, and nobody knows which one of them is the vampire or who he might’ve turned because it is always night, so nobody needs to hides from the sun for their survival, now that would be scary!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are / *** (PG)

Max: Max Records
Mom: Catherine Keener

With the voice talents of:
Carol: James Gandolfini
Judith: Catherine O’Hara
KW: Lauren Ambrose
Douglas: Chris Cooper
Ira: Forest Whitacker
Alexander: Paul Dano

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Jonze & Dave Eggers. Based on the book by Maurice Sendak. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language).

I can hear the complaints. “It’s not a kids movie.” “It’s depressing.” “It’s not any fun.” In fact, Warner Bros. Pictures felt director Spike Jonze’s original cut of the film was so family unfriendly they made him go back and re-edit some of it. So this is the more family friendly version of the film. But whatever you think the movie should be, it’s still a good movie. Possibly a little slow and a little too devoid of humor, but “Where the Wild Things Are” is a smart look at how difficult it can be for a kid to understand just how complicated life can be.

To say this isn’t a kids movie is to ignore half—if not more—of what childhood is about. Max (newcomer Max Records) is a boy who must often play by himself because the people closest to him have other things to worry about in their lives. So Max builds forts in the snow by himself and terrorizes his dog and desperately seeks the attention of his Mom (Catherine Keener, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), who despite her love for him has many concerns beyond Max—work, her ex-husband, a boyfriend.

Max has a vibrant imagination. When Mom is having a rough day, she has Max make up a story for her. One evening after Max pushes his Mom’s buttons to the point where she becomes very angry with him, he runs away. He finds a boat and sails across a sea. He discovers a land inhabited by wild beasts who behave very strangely. After he diffuses a situation with one of the beasts named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, “Romance & Cigarettes”), he convinces the small clan of creatures to make him their king.

Jonze’s script, co-written by Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”), obviously expands a great deal on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book. He uses all of the monsters seen in Sendak’s book as they were designed by the writer/artist. But unlike the book, each monster is fleshed out into an individual. Each of the monsters contains elements of Max’s own personality. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara, “For Your Consideration”) is the side of his personality that is always negative. Alexander (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood”), the smallest monster, reflects the side of Max that feels no one ever pays any attention to him. The talented tunnel builder Ira (Forest Whitacker, “The Last King of Scotland”) is quiet and content. Douglas (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation”) is the consummate friend, even when his arm is ripped off! The Bull (Michael Berry Jr., “Star Trek”) is an ever present, seemingly imposing force, who turns out to be quite sweet when he finally speaks. KW (Lauren Ambrose, “Starting Out in the Evening”) is the one who is breaking away from the juvenile antics of the rest of the group, the element in Max ready to make the leap into adulthood.

Carol is the most like Max’s surface personality, the one who Max learns the most from. What their relationship amounts to is a deep examination of how the mind of a child works. The child wants everything to be the way he expects it to be, and a child’s expectations are as grand as their imaginations. Max proposes the building of a giant home for the entire monster clan, with an underground tunnel from one part to another. This fort will spring as a trap when anything enters that one doesn’t want to be there. What Max’s grand design does not consider is that each monster may not have the same wants and desires. These creatures’ personalities are as divergent as any group of people.

For all its insight into a child’s psychology, the one thing that “Where the Wild Things Are” is a bit light on is the fun. It is a dark film that misses much of the zeal of life children are able to express, even moments after their world has been devastated. When Max first arrives among the wild things, they do spend some time romping around having fun. But this whole environment is so foreign to the audience; we never really get a chance to relax in it before the tensions begin to arise amongst the monster clan. Plus the “real world” Max exists in is so fraught with the tensions of everyday life; we get the impression that Max lives a depressing life. I don’t think Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) intend this, but we needed to see a good time for Max. We almost get that in the snowball fight, but that goes bad.

Many have complained, “This isn’t a children’s movie.” Hogwash, I say. My boy said, “This is sad.” But he sat riveted throughout most of it and said he enjoyed it when it was over. “Zombieland” isn’t a kid’s movie. “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t a kid’s movie. But there is hardly a movie made without graphic violence and sex that isn’t a “kid’s movie.” Movies are made out of fantasy—even those based on fact. Movies are often our primary connection with our childhood once we reach adulthood. And to say something that is thoughtful, intelligent, and even sad isn’t for kids is to deny that kids are capable of these characteristics. “Where the Wild Things Are” may not be what we as adults want out of a kid’s movie; but it is of childhood, and therefore something for a kid’s wonderment.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Special Report: “The Strangers” and the Cinema of Brutality

After seeing the fascinating and disturbing picture “The Strangers”, I was struck by a new and somewhat disconcerting trend in horror over the past decade. There has been an increasing trend toward the depiction of brutality in cinema in general, but most profoundly seen in the horror genre. The connection seems obvious at first. If you’re watching a movie about a serial killer, there is going to be some level of brutality involved. But there’s a difference between violence and brutality, even graphic violence does not necessarily entail the depiction of brutality.

I enjoyed most of this intense thriller about a couple that comes home from a wedding reception very late at night. After a strange woman knocks on their door at 4 a.m. looking for someone else, a group of three people wearing masks begins to psychologically torture the couple. At first just working on their fears by making noises outside and trying to get in, but eventually much darker intentions are pursued and eventually the couple is physically tortured and then killed.

The majority of the picture is fascinating, skillfully made, and totally frightening. But in the final moments, when the psychological torture had given way to physical, I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to watch this. Although the director makes it clear from the beginning of the film how it will end, the majority of the running time is filled with suspense over just what is happening to the couple. What terrible things do these strangers have planned for them? How will they remain hidden and protected from these vicious killers? How will they escape? How can they fight back? Will they get help?

But once they’ve been captured, the game is up. The final ten minutes of the movie is just a voyeuristic look at the brutal things terrible people will do just for the hell of it, and suddenly it is no longer a horror movie. Rather it is a snuff film, entering territory that is more like pornography than art. It’s something I get no excitement from. The characters ask their killers, “why are you doing this?’ and I have the same question for the filmmakers.

I’ve seen several films in this same vein during Horrorfest over the past couple of years. Last year it was both the original and Hollywood remake of “Funny Games”, and a couple of years ago it was the controversial movie “Chaos”. While Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” tells a similar story as “The Strangers” of some home intruders that torture and murder a family, it is an expertly told game for these murderers. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but the skilful filmmaking keeps the voyeurism above the level of exploitation. “Chaos”, although it was famously accused of being exploitation by Roger Ebert, is a much more structured story, that unfortunately sails off course in its final moments.

Then there are the “torture porn” movies like the “Saw” franchise and the “Hostel” films. For the most part these movies are structured as ridiculous games for the victims involved and therefore fall more along the lines of silly horror fantasies rather than as true disturbing voyeurism. But all of these films add to a sense that our culture is becoming more desensitized to the truly disturbing.

I would guess it’s the goal of these filmmakers to present this material to be just as disturbing as it actually is and therefore present a purposeful feeling of unpleasantness about murder and torture, but again I feel compelled to ask why would I want to see that. It isn’t that these are necessarily bad movies. As I’ve stated, several of them are skillfully—some even artfully—made, but there is a line where the entertainment factor disappears and what is left is merely depravity. Is that a line that should be crossed?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zombieland / *** (R)

Columbus: Jesse Eisenberg
Tallahassee: Woody Harrelson
Wichita: Emma Stone
Little Rock: Abigail Breslin
406: Amber Heard
Bill Murray: Bill Murray

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. Running time: 80 min. Rated R (for horror violence/gore and language).

Anybody who is familiar with Facebook has seen the quizzes you can take to see how long you’d last in a zombie apocalypse. Well, now they’ve made a movie to help you improve your score. “Zombieland” is a veritable rulebook on how to survive full-fledged zombie outbreak. In fact, the narrator and star of the story, Columbus, states his many rules for survival throughout the film. The director highlights each rule with title cards and dinging sound effects to let you know when one is being put into practice. Even the characters’ names, which are simply their home towns, are one of the rules for survival. They don’t use their real names so they won’t get attached to each other in case one of them is turned into a zombie and the others must destroy him.

Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland”), as Columbus, narrates his thoughts with innocence and charm, which acts as counterpoint to the grizzly images of the zombified populace feasting upon the uninfected. Director Ruben Fleischer places special care in providing the minutest of details to the slow motion scenes of zombie attack that accompany his opening title sequence. With Eisenberg’s timid narration and a hard rock soundtrack supplementing those images, it’s easy to discern that this isn’t going to be you grandma’s idea of a zombie flick.

Fleischer has said that the recent British zombie spoof “Shaun of the Dead” inspired him in making this film. Certainly “Zombieland” is an American take on that movie’s notions about zombies and how our over stimulated society might react to a zombie outbreak with underwhelming alarm. But “Zombieland” is hardly a spoof of zombie flicks. In fact, it’s hardly a zombie flick at all, save for those gruesome opening credits and the final ten minutes. In between credits it is basically a buddy/road trip movie that just happens to have the zombie apocalypse as a backdrop.

Tallahassee, a sort of redneck zombie killing expert played by Woody Harrelson (“Seven Pounds”), joins Columbus on his journey. “Teaming up” is against both their survival codes, but they do so out of convenience and loneliness. The two are soon conned by a couple of sister grifters, Wichita (Emma Stone, “Superbad”) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”). Since they’re sisters, I’m not sure why they have different names. Later the four combine forces to travel to California so Little Rock can find some happy memories at an amusement park the sisters had visited before the zombies.

What the movie amounts to is not much more than some characters that are fun to hang out with, some good conversations about hip pop culture references, like the disappointment of finding an endless supply of snowballs when all you want is a twinkie, and an unexpected cameo by Bill Murray (of “Ghostbusters” fame) playing himself. The zombies really don’t even come into play that much beyond giving the leads something to kill every once and a while.

I suppose with Columbus’ rules of survival, that’s really all a zombieland would be—a place to hang around, shoot the breeze, and take very alert bathroom breaks. Don’t forget the “Double Tap”, and that’s really all there is to it. I suppose that can be fun. It is for this movie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Horrorfest Week 1: It’s October Already?!

It’s October already?! Wow! That one snuck up on me. The Wells household has been so busy over the past few months that Horrorfest snuck up on me for the first time since I started devoting the entire month of October to horror movies back in 2000.

I was able to compile a list of films to watch just days before the month began, but it’s so unlikely that I will get to all of my titles that I’m wary of announcing any sort of schedule for this year’s fest. 13 days into the month, and I’ve only gotten to five movies so far. Regardless, Horrorfest is officially under way, and it’s still my favorite time of the year.

Like a couple years ago, this year’s Horrorfest got a sneak about a month ahead of time when Rob Zombie’s sequel to his “Halloween” reboot was once again inexplicably released at the end of August. Hollywood does realize that Halloween falls in the month of October, right? Of course, the release date is only one of the first film’s mistakes to return in “Halloween II”. But I don’t want to focus on the negative right now. For that you can read my review here. It wasn’t Horrorfest when I saw “Halloween II”, but it is now; and so far, it’s already one to remember.

I kicked off the official Horrorfest entries with a British classic that I first read about in Roger Ebert’s first volume of “The Great Movies” series. “Peeping Tom” was advertised in 1960 as the British “Psycho”. Apparently the Brits were still bitter about Alfred Hitchcock’s defection to Hollywood at the time. While Michael Powell’s cult classic about a serial killer is not as accomplished as Hitch’s movie from the same year, it is strangely more intimate than the American horror classic.

It follows a young movie studio cameraman, who films even when he is not at work on a hand held camera. He is obsessed with filming beautiful women. He even moonlights as a photographer for soft-core pornographic stills. Soon it is revealed that he is behind a series of killings which he also films, but when he meets a woman in his own tenement building he makes a pact not to put her on camera for fear that he might kill her too.

“Peeping Tom” is a bit goofier than its contemporary American films, but its innocence helps fuel its anti-hero’s compulsions. This is a serial killer that it is very difficult not to like, even when he is in the act of killing.

“The Last Winter” is a horror film of a very different nature. The message horror flick is one of the best kinds, and the environment often takes the spotlight in the horror picture with a message. Such is the case with this winter isolation suspense film. In fact, nature is the horror in “The Last Winter”.

Taking place in an isolated research station in the Acrtic, “The Last Winter” provides all the classic horror devices. An isolated location, a small cast of characters that can be killed off at a decisive pace, a harsh environment, and lots of darkness set this movie up as a chiller. Of course, in the end it’s the lack of chill that winds up being the real horror. It is called “The Last Winter” after all.

Perhaps this movie isn’t quite as scary as it should be. There is no ubiquitous monster, as in a film like “Alien”, although for a while the filmmakers make it seem like it. Eventually a sort of spirit monster does rise, but it happens a little too late in the film to hold as much significance with the film’s environmental message as it should. But the movie does make you think and the cast does a good job of keeping their own tensions up, even if the “monster” doesn’t.

A wintery environment is also a major factor in Roman Polanski’s 1967 vampire spoof “The Fearless Vampire Killers: Or Pardon Me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck”. Taking the basic “Dracula” formula, the fearless vampire killers of the title are Professor Abronsius, a doddering old fool, and Polanski himself as the Professor’s hapless assistant Alfred. They visit a remote town in Transylvanian to try to prove Abronsius’s theories about bloodsuckers and find themselves in a slapstick caper version of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale.

While the movie never really quite works, it does benefit from Polanski’s skilled direction and superior production values, elevating it above the batting level of your typical spoof. It’s a spoof directed by someone who could’ve taken a serious swing at its subject, rather than looking like it was directed by someone who only directs spoofs. Hence the winter environment lends some truly striking visuals to go with its subject; and despite the slapstick humor, there is still some respect paid to the vampire cinematic traditions. Which is something that cannot necessarily be said about today’s serious takes at the vampire mythos.

“Feast”, the only horror film to come out of the Project: Greenlight reality television series about giving cinematic upstarts a shot at making a movie, however, is not interested in taking horror movie traditions seriously. And that is where it finds all of its charm. While not a spoof in itself so much as it spoofs the horror flick cast clich├ęs, “Feast” is a gross, disgusting, and ultimately original take on the creature feature.

Like “The Last Winter”, “Feast” sets itself up in many horror film traditions. Again we see the isolated location, the limited cast that can be picked off one by one, and the nighttime setting. Although it gives us the archetypal characters we’ve come to expect in such situations, it does not conform to even the traditions with them that it claims to when it labels each character with title cards explaining their role and life expectancy. The first indication that something is awry with the way this film deals with its characters is when the “hero” is introduced as being the story’s most likely survivor and then within seconds of his introduction is decapitated. The unseen monsters then proceed to cut the cast in half in the first three minutes of the 95-minute runner. The movie replaces the hero with a second one; and then eventually, when that one meets another untimely demise, gives up on the traditional heroes by promoting one of the cast’s other roles to the eventual hero role.

“Feast” certainly isn’t for the faint at heart, as the gore level is ratcheted up to distract from the absurdity level. Nor does it contain the thought provocation or message of similar horror set-ups. But it is a fun time if you’re paying attention.

The first truly great horror movie to emerge from Horrorfest ’09 is the Spanish ghost story “The Orphanage”. Executive produced by Spaniard maestro Guillermo Del Toro, Juan Antonio Bayona, working from a screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez, proves the rising Spanish film movement with this intelligent and truly heartbreaking masterpiece in personal horror.

A woman returns to the estate where she once lived as an orphan. Purchasing the property along with her husband and young boy, she plans to run her own institution for mentally handicapped children. Before her school opens, however, her son disappears under strange circumstances, and the woman begins to suspect the old orphanage might be haunted.

The development of the plot is deliberate and disturbing. It’s one of those movies with an ending you can’t see coming, but once it arrives you can retrace the steps toward its implacable logic. The ending is bitter sweet, and some might perceive it as a cop out, but without its meager attempt at some little bit of happiness to be found in its conclusion, the closing would be almost too much for an audience to endure. This is masterful filmmaking, and everything Horrorfest is about.