Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fist of the Vampire

Directed by Len Kabasinski.
2007, Not Rated, 96 minutes.
Cast:
Brian Heffron
Darian Caine
Brian Anthony
Cheyenne King
Len Kabasinski
Deanna Visalle
Victor Kuehn
James C. Nickels
Dave Campbell
Melissa Scott


It is finally Halloween. It’s also the bittersweet end to 31 consecutive days spent in horror flick captivity. To commemorate the occasion, I figured I’d go out with something totally nutty. Since I have plenty of odd cinematic excursions in my own collection I started by searching there.

Searching.

Searching.

Keep searching.

Voila!

Fist of the Vampire.

Okay…before I get into this, let me get my mind right.

Deep breath in…big exhale. Again. Okay, now I’m good.

Let’s start with our hero, Lee (Anthony). He’s a detective whose request for transfer has just come through. When he get to his new duty station he is promptly assigned an undercover gig to infiltrate an underground fight club. In addition to people beating the crap out of each other there is suspected to be, of course, lots of gambling, illicit drugs and possibly some prostitution. Instead of posing as a prospective gambler as suggested by his boss, our knight in shining armor decides to go in as a potential fighter. Okay, fine. Do things your way, Mr. Hero. Anyhoo, he finds out what we already know: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are really…oh, wait. Wrong movie. What Lee really discovers is that this particular fight club is ran by a trio of vampires who, in addition to being crooks, occasionally dine on the talent. Bad. Movie. Heaven.

Everything about this movie is horrendous, amazing, or both at the same time. The fight scenes epitomize this. Whenever one starts up, which is quite often, some heart pounding music kicks in. Good stuff. Our combatants are full of vigor. Good stuff. The fight choreography is nothing special, but passable. Good stuff considering I didn’t expect Sammo Hung quality. Unfortunately, the execution of that choreography is hilariously bad. I mean, you see the same moves you’ve seen in hundreds of other movies, but with pauses between them. Often, instead of a punch being blocked as it is being thrown, a fighter throw the punch then leave his/her arm extended for a second or so until their opponent reaches up to block the punch. I really can’t tell you how much laughter this gave me.


Visual effects are another example of how good and terrible this movie is. The movie opens in 1977, by the way, before transitioning to “present day.” During these opening scenes, the filmmakers made a concerted effort to make it look like a 70s flick. The color is a little more washed out and they superimposed some grain onto the screen to make it look like old school film stock. I was genuinely impressed. Vampire related gore is also a plus. Throats are ripped open pretty good. Granted, it looks as if they got everything they needed for these scenes from the Halloween section at Party City, but they did a pretty solid job with it. Then there are gun related effects. Oh man, is this bad. Superimposing grain for the 1977 scenes works. Doing the same with cartoon splatters and flashes of light does not. It doesn't help that the actors often poke out their guns in an exaggerated manner as they shoot. No one in real life who has any experience with firearms does this. Yes, this incites more laughter.

I could go on listing things that sorta work until they fail in spectacularly funny fashion, but I think I’ve said enough. Well, I will mention one more thing. I have to mention the acting. I guess you can call it that. It’s never actually good. Instead it ranges from sounding as if the lines are being read for the first time to sounding the way someone would say them if they were talking in their sleep. Anticipating how much more unnaturally the next line will be delivered just adds to the fun. And I haven’t even mentioned that our hero gets woken up by a phone call from his boss every single morning and we’re shown this with the shot framed the exact same way every stinking time. Mix in a barely coherent script, gratuitous nudity, and the oddity of gangsta vampires and you've got yourself a flick that’s so bad it’s awesome!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Amityville Horror (2005)

Directed by Andrew Douglas.
2005. Rated PG-13, 89 minutes.
Cast:
Melissa George
Jesse James
Jimmy Bennett


In 1979, The Amityville Horror hit theaters, and not only became a hit movie, but a cultural phenomenon. People actually made the trek to New York to see the house where the movie was set because it was supposedly a true story. I don’t knock anyone for believing in ghosts and/or haunted houses. To each his own. However, I do have to question the intelligence of people who believe it to be true and go there on purpose. What if it is? Being in the midst of a demonic paranormal entity doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs to me. As noted in my review of the original, whether or not our tale is rooted in reality has been hotly debated and largely debunked. What is inarguable is that it provided the template for the modern haunted house movie which is still being ripped off ad nauseum all these years later.

This brings us to the remake you came here to read about. The setup is the same as the older movie. The Lutz family is house shopping for a place suitable for their family of six: George (Reynolds), Kathy (George), three kids, and one dog. The kids and the dog came with Kathy as part of a package deal, having remarried after the death of her first husband. They check out the fateful house and it is obviously out of their price range. No worries, the real estate agent assures them she’s letting it go cheap. When asked what gives, she explains what we saw at the very beginning. The year before, some nut got up out of bed at 3:15 AM and blasted everyone in his family with a shotgun. Since it is a beautiful house, and George wants to make his woman happy, the Lutzes decide to buy it. After all, as George so eloquently puts it, “houses don’t kill people.” We’ll just see about that, won’t we.

Right away, and every night at 3:15, things go haywire. George is affected more than anyone. The movie, including Reynolds himself, does a nice job with his rapidly deteriorating mental state. This is very clearly a man losing it. Just to make sure we know that it’s the house causing all of his issues, he’s a much nicer guy whenever he is away from it. For the most part, he drives the movie. The film, and the house, uses him to crank things up or ratchet them down at the appropriate times.


The character who shoulders the rest of the load is the daughter Chelsea. She interacts with the house in a way no one else does. As a result, she’s often in harm’s way. This is one of the very early performances of child star Chloë Grace-Moretz. She’s about as solid as any kid would be in the role, but it’s hard to tell from this that she would become a top notch and highly sought after talent with many horror titles on her resumé. Still, the movie effectively uses her to score easy sympathy points and provide some harrowing scenes.

On its own, this is a briskly pace film packed with creepy visuals. It hardly gives us a chance to catch our breath as it is constantly sprinting to the next big moment. Juxtaposed with its predecessor, we see that it is a more concentrated effort. This version is almost solely focused on the Lutz family. The story of Father Callaway (Hall), Father Delaney in the original, ran prominently alongside the main plot in that older flick, but is barely included here, almost totally diminished in importance and altered in execution. Conversely, the bit about Lisa (Nichols), the baby-sitter, is expanded into a much more intense scene and the character herself is completely different. The other major difference is how the dog is handled. In the original, it is used to show how caring a person George really is when not under the house’s influence. This time it’s used to demonstrate George’s loosening grip on reality.

It is my opinion that this is a very underrated movie. It ramps up the tension early and doesn't let up. Ryan Reynolds gives a very convincing performance of a guy flipping out. There are also excellent and unsettling visuals throughout. Normally, a ninety minute remake of a two hour movie is cause to ring the alarms. Ring them even louder when you add the fact that Michael Bay is a producer on this one. Logic tells us that so much would be left out it would feel incomplete. Honestly, there are things left out of this version. However, it feels like what was removed made it a more concise effort without sacrificing the essence of its predecessor. It’s just plain fun to sit through.


MY SCORE: 7/10

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
1979. Rated R, 119 minutes.
Cast:
Rod Steiger
Don Stroud
Murray Hamilton
Natasha Ryan
K.C. Martel
Meeno Peluce
Helen Shaver
Amy Wright
Irene Dailey


The Lutz family is shopping for a house. Even though George (Brolin) and Kathy (Kidder) are on a strict budget, they need a place big enough for them, Kathy’s three kids from a previous marriage and their dog. Fortunately, a house sitting right on the lake with more than enough property is available. It would normally go for an exorbitant price, but the real estate agent is desperate to get this one off the market. That has something to do with what happened a year ago. One of the prior residents lost it and killed his whole family. Yes, our prospective buyers are aware of this fact. But hey, the agent assures the Lutzes that their low-ball offer will be accepted so they make the deal and move in. This shouldn't be a problem because, as George says, “Houses don’t have memories.” Or, do they? Things go haywire promptly at 3:15 AM every night and anyone wearing any type of religious garb is rudely welcomed.

It isn't long before hell starts breaking loose which helps create tension early on, keeping us engaged. We’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen next, but we eagerly anticipate what that might be. Even better, the house seems to be working a divide and conquer scheme, mostly concentrating on George. More and more as the movie progresses he gets that far away look in his eyes, separates himself from the family and we’re just waiting for him to completely snap.

An interesting subplot is that of Father Delaney (Steiger) who shows up early to bless the house at the Lutz's request. How this story plays out runs perfectly alongside the main plot. It doesn't quite fit the haunted house motif, but it works by bolstering our understanding of the house’s power. It becomes a character with more than one dimension, proactive in what it’s doing to the family, reactive and defensive with those who may have the ability to stop it.


Thirty plus years since its release, The Amityville Horror is a movie that has to contend with history. First and foremost, it has to deal with the countless haunted house flicks that have come out since 1979. Many, if not all of them, are heavily influenced by this movie. Though not nearly as impactful on the viewer as it once might have been, it stands above most of the crowd. Helping it to do so is how the family is handled and the performances of the leads. Many of the genre’s entries trudge along way too slowly, showing the family’s mundane life in a feigned attempt at character development. Here, we get to to know them as the rest of the story unfolds. This doesn't make the Lutz family the most memorable lot, but it’s an effective way of telling the story.

That story and its history also loom large over the film. When it came out it was billed as a tale based mostly in fact. Over the years, how true that is has been debated heavily. Books have been written and interviews conducted, including with the real Lutz family. Their stories have changed several times and their credibility has become highly questionable. Conventional wisdom now says that the true story angle is a crock. Truthfully, this is neither here nor there with regards to the quality of the movie, just an interesting tidbit I thought I’d share.

As for the movie, it is still a very solid haunted house flick. It may come off as dated. Some of this is due to the look of the film and the fashions on display. The bigger problem, however, is that so many of the things this movie introduced have become old hat. Viewers without perspective may struggle to see what the big deal is. I’ll address them directly in case I somehow haven’t made it clear: all of the haunted house movies you love stole from this one.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Monday, October 28, 2013

Frankenweenie

Directed by Tim Burton.
2012. Rated PG, 87 minutes.
Cast:
Charlie Tahan
Atticus Shaffer
James Hiroyuki Liao
Conchata Ferrell
Tom Kenny


Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) doesn't have many friends other than Sparky, his dog. Victor’s father notices this and urges his son to get our there with the other kids. Specifically, he gets the boy to participate in a baseball game. Not wanting to be left out, Sparky chases the ball into the street and is killed when hit by a car. Inspired by what he learned in science class, Victor successfully resurrects the dog. Initially, this is unbeknownst to anyone else. When word gets out, all the kids want to bring something back to life in hopes of winning the upcoming science fair. Of course, things don’t go as well for them as they did for Victor.

The journey director Tim Burton takes us on is one steeped in nostalgia, paying homage to horror’s glorious past every step of the way. While Victor himself is a rather typical looking Burton creation, the rest of the kids look like classic monster movie characters. One kid resembles Igor, another Frankenstein’s monster, and so on. The science teacher is a dead ringer for the legendary Vincent Price. There are many instances we’ll note as inspired by those old pictures and the entire thing is shown in a traditional black and white.


Simply incorporating elements from great movies is not enough to make this film any good. Fortunately, Burton tells us a wonderful story. It functions as a tale about a boy and his dog and as a horror flick. In true Burton fashion, the boy is a loner and a bit of an outcast. This is displayed by a brilliant inversion of the way the director usually presents things. In movies such as Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and as recently as Dark Shadows, the protagonist is not only clearly different from those around him, but to us, also. Whether it’s a physical deformity, ghastly colored skin, or just running around in a costume, we saw something strange about them. Here, the hero looks more like us than anyone else in the movie. The other characters are the more gothic creations. Since they are the majority, Victor still comes across as the oddball. However, like other leads in the Burton canon, he’s an oddball by nature, not some stubborn contrarianism. He also has a good heart. Misguided as it may have been, he brought Sparky back to life out of love for the dog. He tries to stop others from doing similar things because he knows there is great potential danger. Victor is easy to root for.

Like the best of Burton, several genres convene seamlessly. Dark comedy and horror blend into a deliciously macabre family flick. Whether we’re laughing, noticing something lifted from an eighty year old movie or staring slack-jawed at all the mayhem of the finale, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. It’s something the director was unsuccessful doing in the aforementioned Dark Shadows. There, his switches in mode are jarring and leave us wondering what we are supposed to be watching. In Frankenweenie, it all goes down smoothly.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Piranha 3DD

Directed by John Gulager.
2012. Rated R,83 minutes.
Cast:
David Hasselhoff
Gary Busey
Matty Bush
David Koechner
Chris Zylka
Paul Scheer
Clu Gulager
Meagan Tandy

A couple years ago, the remake of the ‘70s cult classic Piranha swam into theaters. It knew exactly what type of movie it wanted to be and executed its plan perfectly. Piranha 3D wanted nothing more than to show drunken, naked female twenty-somethings, give us the goriest death scenes possible, crack a bunch of jokes almost as gross as the co-ed carnage on display and do it all at a blistering pace. It did exactly that from end to end. Every frame of it was so bad it’s awesome! The sequel, with no less titillating a title than Piranha 3DD, promised to be more of the same.

Somehow, the director of this mess got the idea he was making a real movie and not something with double D in the title. Of course, he fails miserably. First, he (and the writers, if there are any) tries to emphasize the incredibly flimsy plot. Final girl Maddy (Panabaker), don’t act like that’s a spoiler, is helping her sleazy uncle re-open a water park which will feature an “adult” section. Second, way too much time is spent with David Hasselhoff who plays himself. This is actually a nice bit of stunt casting, a gag that should've been afforded a few short scenes a la Bill Murray in Zombieland. Instead, it eats up a huge chunk of the movie for no apparent reason other than for Hoff to make fun of himself. Sounds awesome, doesn't work out that way. Third, the detestable things we love about the first movie are just plain detestable, here. This includes manner of death. When the fish finally take over the proceedings, the kills are a good deal less imaginative than in 3D. There are some good ones, but they’re weaker on the whole. Eventually, things turn to setting up another sequel (3DDD?) and they somehow get too ridiculous, even for this franchise.

Like its predecessor, 3DD is complete trash. However, the first movie was trash of an endlessly and enjoyably repugnant variety. It was like gorging yourself on a gigantic bag of your favorite mini candy bars. The sequel is more like eating directly out of a dumpster.


MY SCORE: 0/10

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jack & Diane

Directed byBradley Rust Gray.
2012. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Riley Keough
Cara Seymour
Kylie Minogue
Neal Huff
Haviland Morris
Michael Chernus
Jen Ponton


Diane (Temple) finds herself in a part of town she’s unfamiliar with, having lost her cell phone and unable to stop her nose from bleeding. Looking for a phone to use, she wanders into the store where Jack (Keough) works. The two ladies, yes Jack is a girl, have a love at first sight moment and wind up spending the rest of the day together. This also becomes all night as they, both underage, sneak into a nightclub. They do some talking, some drinking, and eventually, some kissing. Throughout, Diane isn't feeling too well. Her nose keeps bleeding and she vomits. In the morning, she returns home to be grounded by Aunt Linda (Seymour). Since love must persist, she continues to see Jack and the girls fall hard for one another. There are two issues at hand, though. First, Diane appears to literally be some sort of monster. Second, she’s supposed to be going away to school in a few weeks. Her tumultuous relationship with Jack ensues.

Though this is a romance, the element of horror runs throughout the movie. Every so often, there is a cutaway to what we can only assume is going on inside Diane’s body. It shows hair seemingly growing and moving through her innards. Between these shots, nosebleeds keep happening. However, our concentration is on the issues our troubled teens are having. This includes dealing with the baggage they each brought into the relationship. It is fairly interesting since the two lovebirds appear to be from opposite ends of the universe. Diane is confused about her future, her relationship with Aunt Linda, her twin sister, and which lines she can and cannot cross with Jack. On the other hand, Jack struggles mightily with authority figures, the recent death of her brother, how much she should commit to Diane, and at least in my opinion, personal hygiene.


The problem is that the horror meant to prop up the story actually undermines it. Initially, it’s set up as if sexual arousal brings about the physical change in Diane that gives us our monster, a la Cat People. Later, it appears Jack might suffer the same affliction. Then, it’s abandoned all together as the movie ends. This means that our monster is one hundred percent metaphor with no literal bearing on the plot. This can work. After all, it was done to great effect in Beasts of the Southern Wild. In that movie, the beasts were not only a constant part of the story, their plot line came to a head. Though open to interpretation, they clearly mean something. That doesn't happen here and what exactly this creature is supposed to symbolize is murky, at best. Is it supposed to represent the raging hormones of teenagers? The dangers of teenage love and/or sex? The dangers of lesbian love? All of these? None of these? The questions do more than nag. They leave a void in the narrative. What the movie is trying to say is far too ambiguous, even for me. In the immortal words of the great Roger Ebert (R.I.P.): “If you have to ask what something symbolized, it didn't.”

I am more than willing to say maybe I just don’t get it. Someone else may watch this and instantly form some tangible idea about the monster and how it informs Jack and Diane’s relationship. This is fine. Just understand that whether or not you can do this is key to your enjoyment of the movie. Our two leads are intriguing enough to fly the plane. They need the other aspects of the film to step up and land the thing. For me, that never happens.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Best Vampire Movies Since 2000

If there is a positive fallout from the advent of Twilight, it's that vampires have been in vogue since the first book of the series hit the best-seller list. Bloodsuckers have invaded screens big and small, dragging werewolves and other classic monsters with them. Having been a fan of vampire flicks since I was a little boy, I can't help but to be a tiny bit thankful.

However, if you've been here all month you might have noticed that I haven't reviewed many vampire flicks this October. Starving for blood, so to speak, I've re-watched a number of them and even sat through the steaming pile I reviewed a few days ago: Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned. Ugh. After all this I asked myself "why not make a vampire list?" Hmmm...the greatest vampire movies of all-time? Maybe next time. Let's narrow our focus a bit. Since the hated Twilight franchise, at least indirectly, helped bring about this exercise, let's keep it close to its own era as possible. While we're at it, let's title it like some sort of definitive list even though it's not. Besides, I'm sure you'll let me know what I've missed. Anyhoo, in my very humble opinion, these are...

The Best Vampire Movies Since 2000

10. Hotel Transylvania (2012)
Okay, I know this is not what you were expecting, but the simple fact is I like this movie more than the dozens of other vampire flicks I left out. That's more of a sad commentary on the genre than anything else. Still, it's fun and well-done. It is all about a dad going overboard to protect his daughter. Dad just happens to be Count Dracula.


9. 30 Days of Night (2007)
The beauty of this movie is its simplicity. In an Alaskan industrial town, it is about to be dark for an extended period of time. As the sun sets, a group of vampires comes into town looking for a feast. That's it. No romantic notions here about a creature who's diet consists solely of human blood. These are simply aggressive and nasty predators. It's perhaps the most willing to be just a horror flick of any movie on this list.


8. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)
In the future, vampire hunting has become a very lucrative occupation. The best hunter out there is D. His big advantage is that he's half-vampire. When a young woman is abducted by a vampire, her father hires D to bring her home safely, or kill her humanely if she's already become one herself. The catch is he's also hired a crew of hunters, so our hero has some competition out there. It's an interesting movie that takes the vampire in some new, and often, strange directions. Don't let the fact that it's animated fool you. It's a dark tale and not made for the little ones. If you don't like anime, steer clear.


7. Daybreakers (2010)
This one is more of a thinking man's entry into the canon of vampire movies. Most of the world's population has already turned into bloodsuckers. Unsurprisingly, they are running out of human blood which is a big problem. The remaining humans form a resistance and might possibly have a cure. There are also the disgusting little creatures vampires devolve into if/when they start feeding on vampire blood. The movie was not especially well-received, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. The plot plays out nicely and despite what I said about this being a thinking man's flick, things get pretty nasty.


6. I Am Legend (2007)
We've already established that Richard Matheson's most famous tale is only loosely followed in this adaptation (click here). What we also established is that most of the liberties taken with the story are for the better. Will Smith gives a surprisingly vulnerable performance and ably conveys a man who knows great loss, but thinks he can fix things. By things, I mean the plague that has turned seemingly everyone else in the world into vampires. These vamps are closer to zombies and have been almost universally panned for being rendered by shoddy cgi. Honestly, I've seen worse. Besides, the movie around them functions pretty well.


5. Underworld (2003)
Vampires and werewolves, here referred to as Lycans, have been waging war for centuries and things are coming to a head. We get in on the story as the one special human is found who can survive being bitten by both monstrous species and could be a formidable weapon. This one plays out as if both creatures were thrown into The Matrix. It is pretty easily the most stylish and least horror movie on the list. Some might say all that style merely masks the lack of substance. I'm cool with that. It works for me. Granted, the franchise spawned from this flick is largely rubbish, but I'm rather fond of this one.


4. Blade II (2002)
Marvel Comics' half-human, half-vampire hero Blade has dedicated his life to destroying vampires. They are out to get him, too. However, at least for one night, both parties have to put aside their differences and work together because there is something out there worse than either of them: The Reapers. Director Guillermo del Toro crafts a movie that functions as part horror flick and part superhero adventure and bittersweet love story. This is by far my favorite movie in the franchise and one of my favorite comic book flicks of all-time.


3. Let Me In (2010)
Here we have the American remake of a Swedish vampire flick. Like its predecessor, it's a wonderful tale of a troubled young boy in love with a girl who happens to be a vampire. We deal extensively with bullying, absentee parenting, puppy love, even pedophilia. Having it set in the 80s also gives some of us old farts a good deal of nostalgia. Yes, I sing along when Culture Club's "Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me" plays. What of it? Anyhoo, all of these things are handled well. Also well done are the performances of our youthful leads and the sheer exhaustion expressed by Richard Jenkins. And of course, in true American fashion, it is more visually gruesome than the original.


2. Let the Right One In (2008)
Okay, maybe it's a cop-out to have both the original and the remake on the same list. But this movie is soooooooo good. True, the remake offers more in the way of blood and guts. On the other hand this one is more subtle. It doesn't show us as much to our eyes, but the more implicit narrative makes this one a bit creepier. Along with all the themes of the American flick, this one includes homosexuality and emasculation in both the literal and figurative sense. Therefore, it's even braver than the remake, too.


1. Thirst (2009)
Vampire movies that mix horror and romance are nothing new. See most of the movies on this list. Still, there's never been one quite like this. While volunteering for a medical experiment in hopes of helping find a cure for the Emanuel virus, a priest contracts the fatal disease himself. Luckily for him, a blood transfusion saves his life. The drawback is that it transforms him into a vampire. Oops. To make things even more complicated, he falls in love with a married woman. As the undead must do to the ones they love, he turns her. She then becomes what might be the scariest vampire in any movie on this list. Korean director Chan-wook Park gives us a beautiful looking movie, despite the gore (or because of it) with a terrifically bittersweet ending.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hotel Transylvania

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.
2012. Rated PG, 91 minutes.
Cast:


After the passing of his wife, Count Dracula (Sandler) is left all alone with his little girl Mavis (Gomez). To provide a safe haven for them and other monsters, he decides to build a hotel where only they can come while he and Mavis will never have to leave. Every year, all of their monster friends gather to celebrate Mavis’ birthday. This one is special because it is her 118th. Like normal 118 year olds, she wants to leave the castle and explore the world. She gets her wish, but thanks to a nifty setup by her dad, she finds out humans are every bit as rotten as he makes them out to be. When Dracula discovers a not-so-threatening human Jonathan (Samberg) on hotel grounds, he goes to great lengths to get rid of the unwanted visitor before Mavis and his guests find out.

Despite its use of just about every type of movie monster imaginable, Hotel Transylvania is really just a tale about an overprotective father and his daughter becoming an adult. It uses similar humor to what we’ve seen in other such movies, animated or not. It works, at times. It has more success with all the double-entendres it slips in. Most of these work fine as surface jokes for the kids, but also as slyly naughty bits for the parents in the audience.

The movie also works well when it is showcasing all of those monsters and making them as normal as possible. For instance, the werewolf (Buscemi) is a weary dad and husband with a boat-load of unruly kids; Frankenstein (James) is a big and strong but very insecure guy. His fragility epitomized by his literal coming apart at the seams. Our wicked witches provide hotel house cleaning. And on it goes. It puts characters we’ve known for a long time in a different light and has fun with it. Helping further, it effectively spoofs a number of traditional elements of monster lore. We get riffs on the seemingly endless number of secret corridors in movie castles and other such things.



Where parents and kids are likely to be most divergent in their opinions of this movie is when it shifts into manic musical mode. I’m sure the little ones will have a blast when Jonathan rocks out on the guitar, or raps, or when Dracula himself raps. For me, it came across as a reach for cool points with the youngsters that it didn’t need to make, not something organic to the story. It doesn’t help that during these scenes the characters are animated with the goofiest possible looks on their faces.

Musical numbers aside, for me at least, Hotel Transylvania is a fun flick. Even though it includes all the monsters, it never strives for kiddie horror. Still, it’s pretty slick with its inclusion of horror movie tropes. It even includes a moment or two that could almost be described as grisly (a pitchfork through a zombie’s head, for example). Our cast is also game. Adam Sandler does his best Bela Lugosi and even gets mocked for it. Steve Buscemi is perfect in his role, as are a number of others. If you’re looking for a Halloween appropriate movie for the children, this is a solid choice.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lovely Molly

Directed by Eduardo Sánchez.
2012. Rated R, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Gretchen Lodge
Johnny Lewis
Alexandra Holden
Ken Arnold
Lauren Lakis
Field Blauvelt
Daniel Ross
Todd Ryan Jones
Alexis Savage


Molly (Lodge) is a newlywed. With her hubby Tim (Lewis), for reasons never quite clear, she’s moved into the house where she grew up, the house of her deceased parents. Pretty soon, things start going bump in the night. Apparently, something is walking around the house, calling her name, and generally driving her batshit insane. It doesn’t help that Tim is a truck driver often away on long trips for days at a time. While he’s away he sends the local clergy, Pastor Bobby (Blauvelt), over to check on her. Her sister Hannah (Holden) also keeps tabs on her. They’re all worried she’ll go back to using heroin. Molly insists she won’t, and that she’s not crazy, yet she keeps hearing and seeing things. Not surprisingly, she comes apart a little more each day.

This is actually an interesting watch that takes standard haunted house tropes and makes them work. The footsteps, ominous voices, and the like are employed to wonderful effect. Their juxtaposition with the performance of Gretchen Lodge in the lead role is what makes it go. Her mental health is disintegrating in front of our eyes. She really seems to be a woman no longer able to hold it all together. It’s very nice work in a genre not known for attracting the best and brightest stars. She makes all of those regular horror elements spring to life. We really feel that she is in danger. The spiraling story knocks us back on our heels a bit while she draws us into the story.


While watching, we wonder if any of this is “real,” or if Molly is just that far gone. Her actions grow in peculiarity and severity as we roll along. We also desperately want to know what is with her fixation on the mother and daughter who live nearby. Eventually, all hell breaks loose and answers start flying in from every direction. It’s a beautifully twisted final act that doesn’t shy away from depicting what is essentially a breakdown. We think.

Then we get to the final two scenes. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say it all turns into a giant WTF ending. Sure, it’s ambiguous, providing no easy answers so it should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, it’s more confusing than anything and introduces things not previously in the movie. This could work, but it’s a jarring blow to our fundamental understanding of what’s been happening. It’s somehow much more far fetched than anything else that has happened and almost totally undermines what is, up until then, an enjoyable horror experience.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

Directed by Richard LaGravanese.
2013. Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.
Cast:
Alice Englert
Alden Ehrenreich
Emmy Rossum
Margo Martindale
Zoey Deutch
Tiffany Boone
Kyle Gallner


With vampire, werewolves, and zombies already taken care of in the inter-mortality relationship category, Beautiful Creatures takes on witches. The movie calls them “casters.” Our caster’s name is Lena (Englert). She’s just moved back to Gatlin, South Carolina, and in with her Uncle Macon (Irons). She’s a rather sullen sort, and a couple months shy of her all-important sixteenth birthday. Despite her best efforts to ward off everyone, Ethan (Ehrenreich) falls for her immediately after laying eyes on her. He manages to break down her defenses, but learns she’s got an awful lot on her mind. You see, on that birthday she has coming, she will discover her true nature and whether she’ll be claimed by the light or the dark. In other words, she’ll find out if she will be a good or wicked witch. Complicating things further, falling in love with a mere mortal is know to be an express ticket to the dark side.

As things roll along, we realize this is a good looking movie that desperately wants to say something, but has no idea what that actually is, let alone how to say it. Early on, it appears to argue for science over faith. Gradually, it floats over to the other position rather unconvincingly. It also wants to establish our two lovebirds as intellectuals, but fails that attempt, too. Both are avid readers. Ethan latches on to any novel he can get his hands on with a particular fondness for the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Lena read poetry, especially that of Charles Bukowski. Unfortunately, what they’re gleaming from these texts is unclear. They appear to be reading only as a means to avoid social interaction rather than an intrinsic passion for the written word. It comes off more as a marker of their being different than their classmates and a way for the filmmakers to pretend this film is somehow more intelligent than its contemporaries.

Other things in the narrative are brought up and unceremoniously dropped. Most noticeably, the conflict between our love birds and the popular kids in school never amounts to anything. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this is a major factor in the movie’s debate on religion. That whole thing, which was potentially more interesting than anything else going on, is similarly abandoned. It makes both things feel like they are there merely to pad out the run time.


Continuing the film’s overall messiness are a bunch of performances that are all over the map. As Lena Englert is okay, but unremarkable. Her leading man, Ehrenreich, is all “golly gee,” and very reminiscent of Lucas Black in Friday Night Lights. He is also more annoying than endearing. Unsurprisingly, the more experienced members of the cast fare better, for the most part. Viola Davis is her usually excellent self, bringing much needed depth and gravity to her walking stereotype of a character (the older black woman with supernatural abilities). The problem is she plays is so dead serious it seems she isn't fully aware what type of movie she’s in. On the other hand, Emma Thompson and Emmy Rossum are perfect, hamming it up as our cackling wicked witches. The one real disappointment is the normally great Jeremy Irons. He seems to be worrying more about whether the studio’s check will clear than the fate of his character’s niece. This is most evident in the way his southern accent comes and goes.

This truly is a post-Twilight world. Movie monsters are being wussified and carrying on full-blown relationships with humans at an unprecedented rate. The Twilight movies themselves are not good, according to most adults, myself included. The films they inspire are generally of equal or lesser quality. Occasionally we get a gem like Warm Bodies, but more often than not, we get something like Beautiful Creatures. It is ambitious, pretty to look at, but overly derivative and utterly contrived. Most of its inspirations are easily visible on the screen. Even less discerning viewers will likely notice where it takes from The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and of course, Twilight. However, it does little more than throw those things out there. Transparently stealing from cinema’s past can work well provided the thief is also a skilled chef mixing the existing ingredients with those of his own creation. Quentin Tarantino has made a whole career of this. Here, all those elements are re-purposed enough to form the type of trite narrative the tween and teen girl viewers into this sort of thing might enjoy, but it fails to differentiate itself from most of the other faux-goth romances out there.


MY SCORE: 4/10

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned

Directed by Brian Thomson.
2008. Not Rated, 77 minutes.
Cast:
Gregg Aaron Greenberg
Joseph Riker
Zoe Hunter
Trina Analee
Monique Dupree
Kaitlyn Gutkes
Joe Testa
Sean Parker
Lloyd Kaufman


Chuck (Riker) is about to get married to Michelle (Analee), his high school sweetheart. Fittingly, his bestest buddy Sammy (Greenberg) decides to throw him a weekend long bachelor party. With the help of their creepy friend Gordon (Testa), they have the use of a house in The Hamptons for all the debauchery they can handle. When the strippers/hookers show up, all hell breaks loose. I mean that quite literally because it turns out these are ladies of the evening in more ways than one. Yup, they’re vampires.

Low budget gore fests can be fun. This one, not so much. Too many things are botched that money doesn't account for. Mainly, I’m referring to the horrible writing on display. This might seem a strange complaint from someone willingly sitting through what I've already called a low budget gore fest, but hear me out. Forgiving the clichéd plot, the movie fails to give us either a likable protagonist or a detestable antagonist. The one guy we might sort of like, Chuck, is such a wuss we want to smack him and tell him to grow a pair. The person we’re set up to root for, Sammy, is a jerk. I guess he’s supposed to be cool because he’s an arrogant jock type, but it isn't working. The whole crew, four guys in all, seems to be angling for Hangover vibe, but falls woefully short. Instead, they feel like aggressively homophobic frat boys spouting off a never ending string of bad jokes. I won’t go into who their adversary is even though it will be obvious within seconds of that person’s first appearance. This person isn't exactly instilling fear in those watching. This is made even worse by all the ridiculously bad acting on display. Strike that. It is far worse than that. To call it so is offensive to ridiculously bad actors. The result of neither the good guys nor the bad guys being the least bit compelling is an apathetic viewer.


I know what you’re thinking. No one goes into a movie called Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned looking for an eloquently written script and Oscar worthy performances. What about the girls and the gore? Fair enough. Now, I am of the mindset that there is something beautiful about most women. Such is the case, here. However, I will say these aren't the type of ladies most horn dogs who would pop such a movie into their DVD player will be looking for. That’s aside from the fact there isn't really any stripping going on. Nudity? Yes. Stripping? No. That said, kudos goes to Zoe Hunter who plays the redheaded vampire. Regardless of whether or not you think she’s being exploited, she gives the movie’s best performance by just going for broke. As for the gore, there really isn't that much of it and what’s there is a mixed bag, at best. It’s largely shots of the aftermath of whatever has just happened. If you've seen a few horror movies, this isn't likely to rate very high with you.

The movie obviously wants to be so bad it’s awesome, but its elements of terribleness don’t come together in a manner allowing it to cross that threshold. It’s most unforgivable sin is that it’s far too boring, especially early, for a movie with such a promising title. It never engages us so we’re not likely to remember any of these people ten minutes after it is over. The whole thing feels slapped together without any sort of imagination. Scratch that. There is one bit of imagination: the unexplained ability of the black vampire’s (Dupree) impressively sized and possibly surgically enhanced boobs. Well, it is sort of explained if you check the credits. Her character is listed as “Emerald – the demon boobie vampire.” At least there’s that. Sigh.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dark Skies

Directed by Scott Stewart.
2013. Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Cast:
Josh Hamilton
Kadan Rockett
L.J. Benet
Myndy Crist
Rich Hutchman
Josh Stamberg


The Barrett family is like many others that dot the landscape of Suburban America in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Once prosperous, Daniel (Hamilton) and Lacy (Russell) are now having financial issues which is causing stress in other areas of life. This includes their relationship with their two boys Jesse (Goyo) and Sam (Rockett). What they don’t realize is they’re about to encounter their biggest problem. A string of strange events occur in their home. They are obviously staged by an outsider, but no evidence is left to let anyone know who the culprit might be. In fact, local police think it’s the couple’s own children behaving mischievously. A little harder to explain is why hundreds of birds come flying into their house all at once. Early in the proceedings, we figure out the family is receiving nightly visits from aliens. It takes the Barretts a little longer to catch on.

Even though we know we’re dealing with visitors from outer space, Dark Skies functions much like a haunted house flick. This serves to amplify any uneasy feelings we might have. We know that these beings have sinister motives. We just don’t know what they are. At keeping us interested, the movie is fairly successful. We see the aliens progressively upping the ante and await the inevitable action-packed fate. Our two leads also help in this regard, especially Keri Russell. We can plainly see her edges fraying because she is believable through all of it. Also helping is the great J.K. Simmons. In every movie such as this, the terrorized family has to seek out a so-called expert on their particular phenomenon. Simmons plays that guy. Here, he’s a bit more subdued than normal. This is fitting because he’s a weary, beaten man. In a review of one of Simmons’ movies (I forget which), Roger Ebert says, and I’m paraphrasing, that when you see Simmons in a supporting role you often wind up wishing the whole movie were about him. It’s true here, as well.


Conversely, Dark Skies struggles mightily in other areas. By other areas, I mean almost anything not directly depicting the aliens’ handiwork. It’s all a mess. Things are introduced and dropped or, worse, proven to be preposterous. The most noticeable thing being the family’s supposed money problems. Such a big deal is made of them, as if the movie is going to somehow angle all of this as a metaphor for the economic state of the nation. Any idealistic notions such as that go out the window when it becomes apparent they’re spending all sorts of money that they shouldn't have merely because the plot requires them to have certain things in order to move forward. We, the audience, would be better off never having heard anything about their financial situation. Another is what the authorities are attempting to do because it looks to everyone like Daniel and Lacy are abusing their kids. It’s built up then practically aborted except for some lip service later on. It just never feels like a real threat. In short, the script could use some tightening up.

What winds up happening is this becomes a less than filling movie experience. The alien stuff works fine, clearly the best part of the film, but isn't breaking any new ground. The human aspects fall short. Early on, this doesn't appear to be an issue as we’re gaining empathy for these people. As things progress, they fall apart. This leaves the more successful parts of the movie to try to carry the weight of both halves. This, it cannot do.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Possession

Directed by Ole Bornedal.
2012. Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Natasha Calis
Madison Davenport
Matisyahu
Grant Show
Rob LaBelle
Nana Gbewonyo
Anna Hagan
Brenda Crichlow


Clyde (Morgan) is divorced and gets his two daughters Hannah (Davenport) and Em (Calis) on weekends. While out and about with the young ladies, he stops at a yard sale. While there, Em takes a liking to an old box that dad happily buys for her. She quickly becomes obsessed with this and eventually possessed by the evil spirit that lives within it. Moths, lots of moths ensue.

It’s all fairly typical of the other umpteen thousand rip-offs of The Exorcist. Rarely, if ever, does it deviate from the playbook. Instead, we barrel along while the movie performs the same old song and dance we know so well. The only real question is whether or not Em is going to spew pea soup all over someone and/or rotate her head 360 degrees. Neither of these happen. All kidding aside, our hope for this movie rests on its visuals. Throughout the movie they’re fairly ho-hum with nothing to provide a jolt. There are two exceptions. Both have to do with a hand coming out of Em’s throat. Yup, I said coming out of. Otherwise, it’s all conventional horror stuff. The only thing that might even remotely qualify as original are those two shots I’ve alluded to. One other minor twist is that our demon is apparently of the Jewish faith. Therefore our exorcism is performed by a rabbi. However, changing our clergyman’s costume to include a yamika instead of a collar is of little consequence.

Despite all I’ve said, The Possession isn’t actually terrible. Yes, it’s totally paint-by-numbers. However, it hits its marks fairly well. Those easily susceptible to frights will have cause to jump a couple times. The performances of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis (as Em) are both pretty good. Madison Davenport isn’t bad as the older daughter, either. Honestly though, I’m only mentioning her so that I can tell you that she looks like Lindsay Lohan during the years between The Parent Trap and Mean Girls. All in all, it’s probably a better movie for people who don’t watch much horror. Those of us that do have seen it all before.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Collection

Directed by Marcus Dunstan.
2012. Rated R, 82 minutes.
Cast:
Emma Fitzpatrick
Randall Archer
Christopher McDonald
Lee Tergesen
Shannon Kane
Andre Royo
Erin Way
Tim Griffin
Navi Rawat
Johanna Braddy


The very existence of The Collection is odd to me. It follows The Collector, a 2009 horror flick that I don’t think was seen enough to justify a sequel. It made less than $8 million at the box office. Granted, it’s budget was some number less, so it made money, but still. Nor was it acclaimed enough for me to understand pushing forward with a second chapter. I guess it helps that some of the people behind the first movie, as well as this one, helped make the ever-popular Saw movies. This all adds up to a shinier, glossier installment, presumably thanks to an expansion of that budget. Full disclosure before we go on: I do not like the original. I find it ridiculous in a bad way as opposed to being so bad it’s awesome. Coming into this one I didn't exactly have my hopes up.

We open on a car crash, beautifully framed from the vehicle’s interior as a dad tells his little girl how much he loves her. Cue opening credits and a bunch of news sound bites filling us in on what our collector has been up to. Mind you, none of this seems to have anything to do with the first movie, or this one. for that matter. Aside from the mere presence of our resident psycho, and one other guy, this is as close as you’ll get to any sort of back-story. No, the other kids didn't damn near kill him in a vicious game of hide-and-seek back in the day, or he didn't get abducted by a rock band and come back a cannibal, the townsfolk didn't kill his dad for taking hearts out of live patients. We get nothing. He’s just some jackass in black mask collecting human body parts. I think. Or lethal bugs. Maybe. Or both. What exactly is in the collection is only referenced in the most vague ways. There are human remains scattered all over his boobie-trapped dwelling, but nothing so organized as to definitively mark it a collection, except the bugs. Let’s move on.

Let’s talk some more about boobie-traps. Like the first movie, this one is built on them. The bad guy has turned an abandoned building into a house of horrors with so much elaborate nastiness I’m inclined to believe he spends far more time designing and building them than collecting anything. There are so many it’s hard to understand how he hasn't accidentally killed himself, or at least lost a digit or two.


Our killer’s most fantastic work is reserved for a public place, of sorts. It’s at an underground nightclub that seems no different than any other except you need to know the secret password to get in. The whole place is rigged with all sorts of sharp objects coming out of the walls. Most impressive is the spinning multi-bladed thing that drops from the ceiling and chops people up something good. This scene is our re-introduction to the character and provides a solid ten minutes or so of pure carnage. It’s truly spectacular. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how at least a dozen people didn't know he was setting all this up. If nothing else it looks like he needed a lot of help to do this stuff.

The end of the club scene gives us our final girl, Elena (Fitzpatrick), and what little plot there is. It’s no spoiler that she’s the it girl since all but one of the few hundred other people in the club die horribly. That one person is Arkin (Stewart). He’s that other guy from the original. He was actually taken to the club in a trunk by the collector and escapes during the mayhem. As expected, Elena turns out to be the little girl from the car crash at the beginning. Her rich dad also survived the auto accident and has hired a team of mercenaries to find his daughter after the massacre at the club. They enlist the help of Arkin, who finds his way back to The Collector’s house in the most contrived manner possible, since he made the trip while stuffed in a trunk. How dad or his goons ever had a clue Elena was at the club in the first place, is still alive, or even know who Arkin is, let alone immediately deducing that he is alive and can help them, is all beyond me. But hey, it’s just a movie, right?

At some point during all this, Arkin tells the crew “he (The Collector) always leaves one alive.” Now, I’m thinking ‘how many mass murders has this guy committed and not been caught?’ Seriously, one guy is repeatedly killing dozens of people at a time, in public venues, it’s all over national news and no one can figure it out? Sigh. I did say this is just a movie, right? The mercs trying to rescue Elena while she tries to escape ensues.

There is no other reason to see this other than the gore on display, which is often quite amazing, to be frank. Members of the search party get offed one by one while various folks The Collector left alive around the building, have more heinous things done to them. So many people are still breathing inside this place it’s like a small town. Again, how many times has he done this? Nevermind. There I go thinking again. Just give it a look if you’re a gore-hound. Skip it if you’re not.


MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kill List

Directed by Ben Wheatley.
2011. Rated R, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Neil Maskell
Michael Smiley
MyAnna Buring
Emma Fryer
Ben Crompton
Struan Rodger

Jay (Maskell) hasn't worked in quite a while and doesn't really want to. Like most guys in that situation, he argues with his wife, Shel (Buring), a lot. Indeed, much of the first act consists of the two of them screaming at one another. Finally, at Shel’s urging, Jay decides to return to work with his best friend Gal (Smiley). It turns out they are hit-men. Gal is the laid-back type, but it is obvious that whatever happened in Kiev has shaken Jay to his core. He’s becoming more and more of a loose cannon likely to kill more than just the person they've been assigned to. Eventually, The Wicker Man breaks out.

That last sentence may seem a bit cryptic, but once you see it you’ll understand, provided you've seen The Wicker Man. Then again, the entire movie is cryptic. If I tried to clarify any of this gibberish I wouldn't be able to keep myself from getting into some serious spoilers. I will say it’s a curious experience with an ending that may baffle you.


Adding to the feeling of bewilderment we may get, the movie slowly morphs into what it wants to be. What starts as a drama about a disintegrating marriage becomes a movie about hit-men and eventually reveals itself to actually be a horror flick. Each of the three acts has the tone of whatever genre it is mimicking at the time. Be aware that when we get to the horror section, the movie isn't so much trying to scare us as it is trying to make us uncomfortable, and finally shock us.

All of this isn't to say Kill List is a bad movie. On the contrary it’s actually an intriguing watch because we desperately want to figure it out. It does a pretty good job drawing us in. We’re concerned for Jay’s deteriorating condition. We’re concerned for the safety of his wife and son as his erratic behavior has put them in jeopardy. We wonder what Gal’s girlfriend has to do with all this. However, the final scene is the fulcrum on which our final decision rests. If you get it, you’re likely to think it’s brilliant. If it just makes you say “huh,” it might totally piss you off.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Wicker Man (2006)

Directed by Neil LaBute.
2006. Rated PG-13, 102 minutes.
Cast:
Nicolas Cage
Ellen Burstyn
Kate Beahan
Frances Conroy
Molly Parker
Leelee Sobieski
Diane Delano


Police officer Edward Malus (Cage) witnesses a mother and daughter get killed when an out of control eighteen-wheeler smashes into their vehicle during a traffic stop. While on leave following this traumatic event, he receives a letter from his former fiancée Willow (Beahan) letting him know that her daughter is missing somewhere on the Summersisle, where they live. It seems to be a largely self-sufficient and private farming community. Sensing that he may be Willow’s only hope to find her little girl, Edward travels to the island in hopes of saving the day. This is even harder than he imagines because when he gets there no on will admit to having even heard of her. They’re also a really tight-knit cult under the rule of Sister Summersisle (Burstyn). To say Malus is given the run-around is putting it lightly.

The plot’s skeleton is the same as the 1973 original. The flesh surrounding it is something else entirely. In lieu of the wacky approach to story-telling taken by its predecessor, this one favors more conventional methods. It settles into being rather run of the mill with no sense of wonder or fun. Many of the original’s outrageous elements are completely stripped away. The rest is put through a strainer until we’re left with the dried meat of a PG-13 thriller designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.


The point of our story is also different. Whereas the original tests our notions of right and wrong, of religion itself, and seems to sling its ending at us from deep left field, the remake narrows its focus and telegraphs its conclusion. By narrowing the focus, I mean things are much more personal for our hero this time around. True, in the older flick his sensibilities are offended by the locals and he searches diligently for answers to his philosophical questions and the whereabouts of the girl. This time, however, he’s connected to the case in such a way that it is simply all about him. This ties into the finale because we can plainly see that all of the goings on are concentrated on his actions and we are occasionally shown women having conversations that spell out their ill will. What happens is that even though the ending plays out similarly in both movies they feel markedly different. As mentioned, the original tackles some rather large and possibly magnanimous themes. This one seems born of a misogyny fueled paranoia about man’s lessening stature in the world, the increasing power of women and the feeling of emasculation it gives to those suffering from its grips.

I’m not one to automatically disparage remakes, but this one really does pale in comparison to the original. That, however, is not its biggest problem. The most pressing issue is that as a standalone film it’s a rather hum-drum experience. It can be easily filed away as yet another picture in which Nicolas Cage is kind of quirky and a bit of a smart-alec. Nothing it does separates it from his rather large pack of terrible movies. You know what? I’m not even blaming him, nor anyone else involved in making this. I’m beyond that, for now. I’m blaming you John or Jane American. That’s right. You. Why? It’s simple. All of the unique qualities of the original were ripped from its predecessor because the powers that be think you can’t handle it and won’t fork over your hard earned bucks to see something that takes the less beaten path. Therefore, instead of something that embraces the oddity that is the first movie, we get this.