Friday, November 04, 2011

Horror Thoughts Final Week: Oct. 28-31

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) ***
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: Paul Weitz, Brian Helgeland, Darren Shan (books)
Starring: Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski, Frankie Faison, Kristen Schaal, Willem Dafoe, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek

“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is based on a series of books with which I’m unfamiliar. From the movie, I would guess they were aimed at adolescents. The movie, however, has this strange, off-kilter quality to it. It isn’t a comedy, but it isn’t outright horror either. It deals with teenage questions of fitting in, family and loyalty. It’s kind of like a cross between the movie “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, the HBO series “Carnivale” and something more along the lines of “Limony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”.

It follows a teenager named Darrin, who is a good kid that does most things right. His best friend is a troublemaker who desires to become a vampire. The rest of the movie will, both directly and indirectly, explore their similarities and differences. Darrin, as the star of this adventure, is the one who actually gets turned into a vampire, or half-vampire. The movie does little to distinguish the two beyond the fact that a half vampire can operate during daylight hours.

John C. Reilly plays the vampire who made him this way in a rare role that doesn’t use Reilly as a screw up. There is a war brewing between the vampires, who don’t kill their victims, and the vampanese, who have little regard for life, human or vampire. There’s a pretty impressive supporting cast that doesn’t really get utilized much, but it’s good to see actors like Willem Dafoe and Salma Hayek having fun with fantastical roles.

The movie is oddly entertaining in its fairly innocent way. It doesn’t really play for shock, and it isn’t an unintelligent sort of adventure. It skirts the line between weird and silly, serious and laughable. It isn’t great horror, or even great fantasy; but its fun and could provide an entertaining evening for a family with older children.

The Last Exorcism (2010) **
Director: Daniel Stamm
Writers: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Hurtham, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley

As we have discussed through movies like “Paranormal Activity 3” recently, the phenomenon of ‘found footage’ horror movies has become an industry of its own. Last year’s “The Last Exorcism” was an end of the summer sleeper in the found footage category. It follows a pastor who performs exorcisms. He invites a documentary film crew along on his final exorcism to expose the growing industry for the fraud that it is. But, it may be that his last exorcism is the real thing.

I liked that the story didn’t go in the same directions that I expected it to take. It’s a movie that doesn’t play to the audience’s expectations. It plays with them, and probably tries a little too hard at that. In setting up the audience’s expectations, the characters are painted a little too broadly.

I had trouble believing that they believed who they were. The pastor is a little too smug in his belief that everything he’s preached for most of his life is a lie. The father of the girl supposedly possessed is too much of a religious fanatic and conspiracist. There’s a good reason writers usually make the victims in possession movies non-believers. The girl is too old. She’s supposed to be a teenager and plays it well, but looks like she’s in her 20s, which she is.

It’s easy to get the impression with found footage movies that they are a lazy form of filmmaking. One might think that the filmmakers decided to go with found footage because the characters in the movie wouldn’t worry about framing and story arc and editing, so the filmmakers don’t either. “The Last Exorcism” proves this not to be the case, however, as it gives us a good example of a found footage movie that could’ve used a good deal more artistic editing and restraint. There are many unnecessary shots in this movie that add nothing to the false experience that all this is real. There are establishing shots were there wouldn’t be in a documentary, some repeated images that seem to be there to remind of things we don’t need reminding of, and the whole story is almost a little too clear with nothing left to the imagination. With the misdirection involved in the story, it might be more effective to have the audience fill in some of the blanks on their own.

Inferno (1980) **½
Director/Writer: Dario Argento
Starring: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff

“Inferno” is in the same tradition as all the great Italian horror under the direction of one of its greatest artists, Dario Argento. It is filled with the bold bright colors that define the cinematic style of Italian horror. It contains many shocking images. A victim is decapitated in a guillotine with a monstrous hand holding her in place. A woman swims through an underground chamber before a decayed corpse chases her out. A curtain is torn by the fingernails of the dead body concealed behind it. A woman is attacked by a pride of stray cats. A building is engulfed in an inferno of flames as a man chases a mysterious figure.

Unfortunately, “Inferno” is hardly more than the sum of its parts. These images are striking and emotionally provoking, but the movie in which they are found is like a rickety carriage that can hardly contain them. There is a slight attempt at an encompassing story that involves three buildings in three different cities and a mysterious killer that hunts down anyone who seems to have even a hint of what is going on. But, a hint is all you will get. Nobody ever seems to comprehend what is really at work in these buildings, the audience least of all.

I understand that this type of horror is not really about anything beyond its images. Argento has had great success with other attempts at this, such as this movie’s predecessor in his Three Mothers Trilogy, “Suspiria”. In “Inferno”, however, every character seems so dumbfounded by what is going on that you have to wonder why they bother to play along. It isn’t like the audience has any insight that the characters are missing either.

The Ward (2010) *½
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Susanna Burney, Dan Anderson, Jared Harris

“The Ward” is American horror maestro John Carpenter’s attempt at replicating an original J-horror flick. It follows a woman who is incarcerated in a mental ward for running around in the woods wearing only her underwear and burning down a house. It’s set in the 60’s when I guess such practices were seen as acts of insanity rather than crime. Of course, they aren’t the real reasons she’s deemed mentally unstable. If you’ve seen “Shutter Island” or countless other horror tales that take place in an asylum, you’ve heard this song before.

I suppose the difference here is that there’s a ghost in the ward. This is one aggressive ghost too. She shows up pretty early attempting to kill the heroine. She even performs perfect lobotomies.

I really expect better from Carpenter than this over done horror drivel. The J-horror elements are perfect examples of how Americans got everything wrong about this horror sub genre. He shows us too much. Tries to shock us out of our seats every time the ghost appears. He creates a ghost that is too much of a presence in the story to actually be scary. There is no hint that the ghost might just be in the heroine’s imagination, which is an irony considering the outcome.

My biggest problem, however, is with the story itself, which is overly predictable. The screenplay doesn’t develop the characters in a way necessary to pull off the trick of it all. And, as usual the hospital staff is vile and morbid in their treatment of the patients, which doesn’t allow for a fully realized environment in which we could care about the inevitable outcome of our heroine’s plight. At least one of the staff members should provide a harborage that would allow the audience to understand just why the patients don’t kill them all.

The one thing that Carpenter gets right is the period setting. The 60’s costumes and atmosphere are excellent and act as reminders that not too long ago women weren’t taken seriously in terms of their own self-image and importance. It’s too bad he couldn’t have incorporated that same period’s film practices into the film’s construction. That could’ve produced a psychological horror show worth seeing.

Santa Sangre (1989) ****
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writers: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento
Starring: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, Faviola Elenka Tapia

“Santa Sangre” is the successful version of what I wrote about in my review of Dario Argento’s “Inferno”. Co-written and produced by Dario’s younger brother Claudio, “Santa Sangre” is a beautiful marriage of shocking images and actual ideas behind them. Alejandro Jodorowsky has a surer hand in his projects than Dario, or perhaps that should be surer mind. Jodorowsky’s work is much more cerebral than Dario Argento’s, yet it retains the visceral surface.

“Santa Sangre” tells the story of a circus performer, and the madness that envelops him after his father’s affair with the Tattooed Lady sends his mother into a murderous rage. Years later the boy, now a young man, is still haunted by the events of his father’s fate. His mother returns to him, armless, as they were cut off by her husband before the acid she threw on him and his lover took his life. She forces her son to provide his arms for her to return to her circus act. He is compelled to supply his arms even though she won’t allow him to pursue his own passions. When he does the results are similar to his father’s fate.

I consumed the first 40 minutes or so of the film with great delight in what I observed, yet wondered if this movie was really a good fit for Horrorfest. It did not seem Horrorfest material at first, but by the film’s heartbreaking conclusion, it was clear that it was a perfect choice for the festival. I will not reveal the outcome of the boy’s fate, but it is a tale that has been told before in simpler horror styles. It has never been told so beautifully as it is here.

Scream 4 (2011) ***
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Emma Roberts, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Hayden Panettiere, Erik Knudsen, Nico Tortorello, Marielle Jaffe, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Mary McDonnell, Lucy Hale, Shenae Grimes, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden, Brittany Robertson, Roger Jackson

“Scream 4” is a return to form for the series that had lost its way in its trilogy conclusion ten years ago. Craven got the original screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, to return to script what has become a new inevitability in Hollywood, the reboot/rebirth of former material for a new generation. The notion works well for the “Scream” premise of spoofing it’s own slasher genre, whilst earnestly producing its own entry into that genre.

Along with the return of Williamson is the return of a cast of characters that know everything about horror movies and even seem to realize they are in one. Unfortunately, with horror, that knowledge alone can’t save you. You have to be playing the right character in the right type of horror movie, at the right time in the series, at the right time in your career.

In every way, this is the right time in their careers for the original three primary cast members to return to this series. Neve Campbell is getting older and threatening to slide too quietly into obscurity. David Arquette might be able to say the same after the demise of his marriage to his “Scream” sweetheart Courteney Cox. Cox has an even better reason to return. She has finally found post-“Friends” success with her television series “Cougar Town”, but she still needs to prove how cool she is by working with her ex as not an ex and giving the film the same super star power she brought to the original.

To find out more about my thoughts on “Scream 4” read my original review here.

Trick ‘r Treat (2007) ***½
Director/Writer: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Samm Todd, Leslie Bibb

“Trick ‘r Treat” pulls off the feat of being a very good horror anthology. It does this by confining five separate stories to the same few hours in the same town on the same Halloween night. In fact, it’s so well structured it plays more like a hyperlink story, where the different stories are all interconnected somehow, than an anthology of separate stories.

These dark tales involve a woman who hates Halloween enough to start removing her decorations before the night is over. A malevolent trick-or-treater makes her pay for her disregard for others’ fun. A school principal lures kids to his front steps with candies that are drugged and dispatched them in his back yard. A group of kids pick on a strange girl by fooling her into thinking an old Halloween myth is true only to find out to their own horror that it is all too real. A young girl is pressured by her friends to pick up a guy for a party while a predator stalks her. It turns out the party he follows her to is a little more than the predator can handle. And an old man must pay the price for a mistake made a lifetime ago.

Written and directed by “X2” and “Superman Returns” scribe Michael Dougherty, all the stories have a whimsy to them that is missing in so many of today’s horror efforts. The stories are genuinely scary whilst giving the audience a wink to let us know that this is all for the fun of it. Anna Paquin, the underrated Dylan Baker, and a nearly unrecognizable Brian Cox bring the effortless gift of presence to their roles adding weight to the material. This is a movie that I could actually see as a perennial addition to Horrorfest. It’s that much fun, all in perfect Halloween spirit.

Orphan (2009) ***
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: David Johnson, Alex Mace
Starring: Vera Farminga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer

“Orphan” is another variation on the child from hell story that has fascinated horror audiences for quite some time now. This child isn’t literally from hell; she’s an evil sibling. She has been adopted into the family she terrorizes, and it’s important to note here that the filmmakers make a point to state at the beginning of the film that this movie is not meant as an attack against adoption.

As is often the case when a family opens itself to attack from within, the events follow a family tragedy. The mother has just survived a particularly gruesome stillbirth. But there’s more offspring tragedy to be found within this family. The youngest daughter is a deaf mute. A short time before the pregnancy, the mother almost allowed her to drown in a nearby pond. The mother was drinking.

The adopted child will exploit all these wounds to manipulate the family into thinking about her in different ways. The children will feel threatened by her. The father will see her as an angel. The mother will suspect the worse, but have no evidence to back it up, making her look crazy in light of her personal tragedies. This is just how the child wants it.

There’s a nice twist to this particular bad child storyline that I would never think of revealing here. Needless to say, it makes for an interesting explanation of the child’s behavior toward her new family.

I had a problem with the movie’s score, however. Too often the music cues seem to exist to tell the audience what to think. That’s precisely the purpose of a score, but you’re not supposed to hear the cogs clanking against each other so loudly. The composer could’ve used a lesson in the power of silence in horror. Many scenes would’ve been more effective and much scarier with a minimalist approach to the music.

The Horde (2009) **
Director: Yannick Dahan, Benjamin Rocher
Writers: Arnaud Bordas, Yannick Dahan, Stéphane Moïssakis, Benjamin Rocher
Starring: Claude Perron, Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney, Aurélien Recoing, Doudou Masta, Antoine Oppenheim

Despite the wonderful reports I had read on this French horror film, “The Horde” is just another zombie movie. It tries to be something different by starting out as a crime picture. A family of cops has lost their patriarch in a gang killing. Four members infiltrate the gang’s headquarters to exact their own justice. Their plans don’t go as well as they’d hoped, but before the worst befalls them, something even worse happens, a zombie horde invades the building.

The movie adds little to the zombie movie clichés. These are fast zombies, which tend to make for far less imaginative filmmaking. Most of the scenes involve a ridiculous amount of violence, blood and gore. It’s not very scary. It hardly tries to be. The filmmakers seem to think that mindless people attacking those with the ability to reason is frightening enough. It’s not.

What perplex me most were the odds the writers put this small group of people up against. There are so many zombies here, and the people are trapped in a high rise. How can they possibly survive? If there’s no chance of survival, there’s no chance at genuine tension. Once the characters were down to pummeling the undead beasts with their bare fists, I had to wonder, “What’s the point? You’re just going to die.”

In closing…

Yes. Sadly, another Horrorfest comes to a close. This was one of my busiest Horrorfests. I watched 46 movies in 32 days. That might be a personal record. I saw horror movies all over the board. There were good ones and terrible ones. There were ones that were scary as hell, and others were funny, some intentionally. And, perhaps the greatest irony is that the best one I saw isn’t even a horror movie. It was a hell of a fun ride this year. Now, what am I going to watch next year?


SD said...

Glad to hear you really dug Santa Sangre. I've watched a lot of Jodorowsky and was curious what you'd think when you mentioned that you were going to be checking him out. It's definitely interesting to think of it in a horror context. It's certainly both a beautiful and horrifying film. For all his use of signs and symbols, Jodorowsky still manages to get you to care about the characters, which makes all the difference.

I totally agree with you about The Ward too. I was excited to see it pop up on Netflix but... yawn.

Andrew D. Wells said...

I've been meaning to get to some Jodorowsky for years. Just before I started prepping this year's Horrorfest I read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on Santa Sangre. He also has one on El Topo. From what Ebert discussed I thought it might fit into a horrorfest and low and behold it was streaming, so I put it in my preview to force myself to finally get going on Jodorowsky. I almost wish I'd gone into him separate from Horrorfest, though, because I always wear myself down with horrorfest. My analysis and writing always get sloppy by the end of the month, because I just go nuts trying to squeeze all the horror flicks I can into the festival. By that final week I'm just exhausted. I feel I missed a lot of the symbolism and would really like to take another look at it. I'll probably take in a few more Jodorowsky's first, though. He had a few on IS last I looked.

It's a shame about the Carpenter, but from interviews I've read with him lately, his heart doesn't seem to be in it anymore. He doesn't seem to have much passion left for telling a story he really wants to tell. It shows. I was actually pretty surprised to see him even directing features anymore.

The big surprise for this horrofest for me though was Kevin Smith's Red State. It didn't belong in Horrorfest, but you really can't fault the programmer considering how Smith promoted it as a horror flick. I like Smith, but I'm not in love with everything he does. I kind of expected this one to good, but nothing amazing. And, I can see how many people won't be impressed by it. I liked it, not just because it was like nothing I'd ever seen Smith do, it wasn't much like any other movies I've seen. It feels like it's going to be something familiar, but by the end it's wholly original.