Saturday, November 07, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 3: Horror Up, Horror Down

My strange mix of horror continues into week three with a black & white classic, a modern mocumentary, a Japanese anime, its misguided live action remake, and the best horror movie to be released in recent memory.

I hadn’t heard of “The Innocents” when Netflix suggested that I might like it just weeks before Horrorfest began. Based on the Henry James novel “The Turn of the Screw” and boasting a screenplay credit for Truman Capote, I hadn’t expected the devious and truly frightening movie I was in store for as I began to stream it onto my laptop late one evening.

There is nothing about this period piece ghost story that didn’t surprise me, from the fact that I’d never heard of it, to the fact that it came from a Henry James novel, to the fact that a British class setting could be so moody and creepy, to the fact that an actress like Deborah Kerr would be allowed to carry such a heavy piece almost singlehandedly in 1960.

The story follows a nanny on her first job, replacing another nanny that had died suddenly. The two children whose care she is charged with are both sweet and intelligent, seemingly the perfect little specimens. Soon the nanny begins to suspect ghosts of the former nanny and a deceased driver the dead woman had an affair with while in service together are haunting the children. It begins to seem as if the children may have been indirectly, if not directly, responsible for their deaths. But the movie doesn’t give into cheap excuses for the children’s strange behavior. Instead of being “evil” these children may have very deep psychological reasons for their behavior. Or maybe they are evil. Or maybe the “ghosts” are evil. Or maybe it is all in the nanny’s head. The film is brilliant in leaving all these possibilities open to the viewer’s interpretation.

“American Zombie” is not a horror movie, but rather another zombie spoof that presents its subject in mock documentary form. It follows several different zombies living in Southern California. It shows their lives as if zombies are the latest in our country’s string of minority figures. They’re used as cheap labor and discriminated against by the population, who for the most part fears them as flesh eaters.

The filmmakers use a diverse group of zombies to detail their existence. One is a slacker/loser who seems perfectly happy to be a zombie, a happy-go-lucky dead guy. Another is a zombie activist, fighting for zombie rights and equality. A third is an office worker ashamed of her deadness. Like many documentaries with a specific goal this one culminates in a zombie festival in which no living humans, save for the film crew, are allowed. Are there secrets the zombie community doesn’t want the living population at large to know about?

This is the question the film crew, headed by real life student academy award winner documentary filmmaker Grace Lee and the slightly more fictional Andrew Amondson (real person, not a documentary director), aims to answer. The film has fun with the divergent methods the two directors wish to employ to obtain those answers. Lee—the experienced documentarian—wishes to gain trust, while Amondson seems to think he’s the next great journalist, asking the hard questions directly. It’s not really scary, but its fun.

For horror fanatics the remake is just part of the landscape. More often than not a remake will be inferior to the original. This is often the case because the themes of the times in which the original was made are no longer relevant, and the filmmakers haven’t made an effort to redirect the themes of the story to fit current events. Of course, sometimes it’s just a mater of good filmmaking versus poor.

With “Blood: The Last Vampire” it is a little of the latter and a lot a matter of a major format change. The original “Blood” was animated in the style that has become known as anime. And it is all anime, with a focus on action and an affinity toward the strange.

The story follows a girl wielding a samurai sword, killing people on the subway and in a school on a U.S. military base. She’s not just slicing and dicing anybody, though; she’s killing “vampires” disguised as normal people. She works for the American government and apparently is half vampire herself. The film is visually stunning and quite creepy in the way it depicts its “vampires” working through the student population.

The live action remake tries very hard to retain the spirit of the anime, but that doesn’t translate so well. The stylized acting of the G-men comes off clumsily and they run out of remake story at about the halfway point (the original film is only 45 minutes). The background story on the girl they come up with to fill in the second half of the film is much weaker than the vampire-hunting portion that takes place on the military base.

Another problem with the live action is that the focus is less on horror and more on Hong Kong-style wire acrobatic fighting. The mixture of genres here detracts from the story, which in itself detracts from the visuals. The film is really quite a mess and a further example of how the vampire mythology is falling further away from its psychological horror ancestry and leaning more toward pure fantasy.

To wash the taste of that failure from my mind I choose to force my wife to watch the best horror movie of the year and one of the best films overall of 2009, Sam Raimi’s over-the-top horror extravaganza “Drag Me To Hell”. Angie had trepidations going into the screening. She’s not a big horror lover. When the film was over, however, she was facebooking every friend she had to recommend it for a good Halloween scare.

Raimi’s rollicking “Drag Me To Hell” is most certainly one of the most fun times you’ll have watching a movie this year. One reason is that he has so much fun with his subject matter. He knows when the horror he has developed is just plain silly and he comes at his audience with tongue firmly in cheek in those moments. He also knows how to generate genuine scares through atmosphere, lighting and—mostly prominently—sound. This makes “Drag Me To Hell” also the most frightening time you’ll have watching a movie this year. Not too light, not too heavy. This is filmmaking at its sharpest. Read my full-length review here.

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