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 clichés, “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.

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