Thursday, October 06, 2011

Horror Thoughts ’11 Week 1: Sept. 30-Oct. 5

eXistenZ (1999) ***
Director/Writer: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Don McKeller, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley

“eXistenZ” takes the David Cronenberg notion that everything is creepier if it’s organic to the video game front as it imagines the next generation of video experience to involve a virtual reality world, which people will enter through controllers the plugs directly into their bodies and breathes and moves as if they are as alive as their users. There is a great deal of sexual innuendo in the concept, like the way that people who don’t have game ports in their bodies are referred to a ‘virgins’. The act of plugging in is not a very veiled suggestion of sexual activity. And, like today’s video game culture, this future version is just an extension of the sex and violence that dominates our most popular entertainment.

“eXistenZ” doesn’t really play like a horror movie, however. It’s more like what an action thriller might look like if filtered through “Naked Lunch”. It does sport a high “Twilight Zone” feel to it, especially in the way the movie ends up. The notion that nothing that you’ve seen is what you thought at first and the twist of who the Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh characters really are at the end all owe a great deal to “The Twilight Zone”. The production design is pure Cronenberg, though.

Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) **½
Director/Writer: Rudy De Luca
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Ed Bagley Jr., Jeffery Jones, Joseph Bologna, John Byner, Carol Kane, Michael Richards, Geena Davis

My dear precious wife does love her silly eighties movies, and I can see the appeal. “Transylvania 6-5000” is really minor work, but it’s done with heart. The cast is surprisingly strong. I doubt that when Geena Davis was running around the set in her skimpy Vampira costume she ever could’ve imagined that one day she’d be playing a first female president on the small screen in the series “Commander In Chief”.

What works in this implausible comedy that never quite becomes spoof is the interjection of absurdity into the comic details of each scene. Carol Kane telling her husband which spots to clean on the window, Michael Richard trying to get Ed Bagley to slip on banana peel, the psychic bashing a hole in her table after every reading, all these quirky details add to the absurdity of this plot, which just wouldn’t amount to much without the extra effort. I have to say in the end that it isn’t entirely recommendable; but if you’re in the right mood, it will give you a good laugh.

Insidious (2011) ***½
Director: James Wan
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Barbara Hershey

“Insidious” is a damn scary movie! I mean this movie will scare the crap out of you. It’s scarier than it has any right to be. It’s certainly scarier than any PG-13 movie has any right to be. In fact, it’s so scary; I don’t think PG-13 is an appropriate rating for it. This movie should be rated R, based on its frightening images alone. One F-bomb is dropped, but there’s no gore, no sex, no nudity, barely even any violence. It’s just scary as ‘H’, ‘E’, double hockey sticks.

The directing and writing team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell show for the second time in their careers a commanding sense of the horror genre. Previously they essentially invented the sub genre of torture porn with the original “Saw”, a movie that had better qualities than any of its sequels or copycats. Now, they’ve artfully pieced together a possession story that embraces many horror signatures, but implements them in such abundance and with such unique application that it’s as fresh as “The Exorcist” or “Poltergeist”. What’s more, it has more scares per minute than those classics. I’m serious. This movie will scare you.

Western of the Week

Undead or Alive (2007) *½
Director: Glasgow Phillips
Writers: Glasgow Phillips, Scott Pourroy
Starring: Chris Kattan, James Denton, Navi Rawat, Matt Besser, Chris Coppola, Leslie Jordan, Brian Posehn

Although the horror/comedy “Undead or Alive: A Zombedy” is not a good movie, I couldn’t help but hold some affection for it, or at least some affection for what it was trying to do. I chose it simply because the thought of SNL’s Chris Kattan starring in either a western or a horror movie is just ludicrous.

I was glad to see it was also a comedy, because a serious take on zombies in the old west is not something I’m sure I really want to see (although I will with a later Horrofest ’11 feature “Quick and the Undead”). The presence of comedian Brian Posehn as the first zombie was also something nice to see. He makes a good zombie. I recall a bit he had in his stand up act about the only role he’d ever play in a horror movie would be that of the creepy guy in the corner getting off on everything the killer did to the victims. He’s charming here as a zombie, however.

Unfortunately, all these happy qualities don’t a good movie make. It has a few good moments, but most of the jokes fall flat. It might’ve been funnier if the zombies had more to say about the inconveniences of being dead and hungry. There’s very little zip to the script, but it has a fun and unexpected conclusion.

Grace (2010) ***
Director/Writer: Paul Solet
Starring: Jordan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Samantha Ferris, Malcolm Stewart

“Grace” gets deliciously sadistic in its final act, making for a capable and somewhat sublime indie horror feature. The story involves a couple pregnant with their first child. The mother is a health food nut, who bears with her overbearing mother-in-law. After a car accident leaves her without her husband and her baby stillborn, she decides to continue with her plans for a natural birth with her wet nurse. Somehow the baby comes back to life upon birth, but there’s something not quite right with it.

I’ll spare you the baby’s secrets to discover on your own. These are the issues that occupy the somewhat meandering middle passages of the movie. I could’ve done with about twenty minutes less of the mother dealing with the baby’s special needs. With a running time of 83 minutes, that might seem a strike against the movie that it might not overcome, but the final fifteen minutes make every other minute of the movie worth it.

Desperation is a great motivator for horror, and this movie has desperation down to an art form. I love how the character relationships come together in one big bloody mess by the end of the movie. “Grace” may have been better as an hour-long episode of a horror anthology, but it is juicy horror.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011) *½
Director: Kevin Munroe
Writers: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Tiziano Sclavi (comic book series “Dylan Dog”)
Starring: Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Anita Briem, Taye Diggs, Peter Stormare, Kurt Angle

I misidentified the source material of “Dylan Dog” in my Horrorfest preview, stating that it was a video game adaptation, when it’s actually based on an Italian comic book. I’m not sure what an Italian comic book artist knows about New Orleans, but there it is.

I really wanted to like “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night”. One reason for that is because I think Brandon Routh got a bad deal with the whole “Superman Returns” thing. I liked that movie better than most people, and I particularly liked Routh as the seminal alien hero. I also very much enjoyed Routh’s run on the television series “Chuck”. How terribly miscast he is here, though. I suppose Dylan Dog is some sort of gumshoe go-between for the living and the undead in his New Orleans universe. Routh is about the furthest thing you could get from a noir hero, however.

I guess the whole thing is supposed to be some clever merging of genres: horror, film noir, and comedy. It never really digs into any of them. It’s got the noir atmosphere, but Routh’s good looks, well-mannered speech, and athletic self-confidence play against the noir archetype. The horror elements are played earnestly, but look schlocky. And, the comedy never quite snaps. All in all, it makes for a disappointing ride that looked like it could’ve been so much fun.

Red Riding Hood (2011) **
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: David Johnson
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Gary Oldman, Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, Billy Burke, Lucas Haas

“Red Riding Hood” is another example of a concept that looked like it had the potential to be something good, but falls flat. It doesn’t fall quite as squarely on its face as “Dylan Dog” does, but it never quite musters up the scares it might have.

Catherine Hardwicke, the author of the first “Twilight” film, takes a classic creature feature approach to this adult look at the rather frightening fairy tale. Instead of filming on location, the setting is cast in the woods that are obviously sets built to give it a sort of Universal Monsters feel. Writer David Johnson has fashioned the tale of a little girl who meets a wolf into a werewolf plot that has a village terrorized and a werewolf hunter that might be more dangerous than the wolf. It still has all the stopping points of the children’s story, the heroine wears a red cape, there’s a brave woodsman, and a grandmother that might be hiding something.

There is some fun to be found here, but sometimes the references to the story have to stretch to fit into the plot they’ve built. Although, there’s a great cast, some of the veteran performers seem to struggle to connect with the material. Perhaps the attempts at showing the production’s seams require a stronger script to keep the material connected to a reality that allows the audience’s emotions to run at a pace necessary for the horror to work. Perhaps that thought is entirely too complex for a cinematic telling of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

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