Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category
[REC] is probably one of my favorite horror films of all time (even if its demonic-possession-blood-disease premise is absurd even by zombie movie standards) and one of the few entries in the increasingly maddening found footage sub-genre that I can actually stand. Its slow build-up of something being very wrong in this quarantined apartment building is downright awesome, leading to one of the most frightening, and earned, endings I’ve ever seen in a movie of this or almost any genre. [Rec] ², its sequel dealing with the direct aftermath of the first film, in the same apartment building with a new set of emergency responders waiting to be served up to the infected, had its moments but was essentially more of the same, with added emphasis on explaining the, again, ridiculous premise that took away from the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here air of mystery of the first film. Apparently the filmmakers heard my complaint, so how do they rectify the second film’s slight stumble? Why, by completely abandoning the found-footage structure (except for the first few minutes’ wedding reception – needless to say, the best part of the film) and everything that made the first film so incredibly unnerving, creating what I guess is, what, a parody of the two more serious films that came before? If not, this was nothing more than a typical zombie movie with effects and gore from any “Walking Dead” episode and some extremely strange humor, completely jarring when considering the two films that came before this (alright, I laughed at the character/running gag of SpongeJohn, the children’s entertainer hoping to avoid copyright infringement, but even that was hideously out of place in this series and even this genre). The premise is a promising one, as amateur footage from a relative and a professional wedding photographer depict a wedding that goes swimmingly, which in this kind of movie only heightens the tension that something, eventually, will go incredibly wrong. And when it does, the chaos is satisfying, a group of survivors hole up in the kitchen, and…the camera is thrown to the ground, we’re transitioned to a traditional film format for the rest of the duration, and the combination of gore, elaborate kills, and odd humor make this little more than an “Evil Dead” or “Dead Alive” knock-off, with characters doing an awfully good job of taking this downright apocalyptic situation in Ash Williams-style stride, rather than the no-names from the first two films with whom we could nonetheless identify simply due to their collective sense of mutual claustrophobic terror. Some of the action and gore and kills are fun to watch, sure, but they’re merely images I’ll forget in a day or two, whereas the mere sense of dread I got from the first film, while indescribable as an specific image or sound, is something I still have sensory memories of to this day, years after watching the film. I suppose the filmmakers had the right idea trying to revive a series that was close to becoming stale. If only they didn’t do it in a format even more stale than the found-footage format that [REC] pioneered.
Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a famed Shakespearean (and only Shakespearean) stage actor, is unexpectedly (to him, at least) passed over for his coveted Critic’s Circle Award by unanimous vote from a fraternity of London’s finest theater critics. Following a failed suicide attempt and subsequent faking of his death, Lionheart strives to put on his greatest performance – a performance of revenge involving some of the most grisly and over-the-top acts of revenge imaginable on said critics, all based directly on the very Shakespearean performances he was so mercilessly panned for. This all arguably inspired many films years afterward, from the concept (“Se7en” famously involved serial killings based, creatively and gruesomely, on the seven deadly sins) to the execution (i.e. all those god-awful “Final Destination” films that were little more than a showcase for deaths whose brutality and depravity knew no bounds). Admittedly, the tone of “Theatre of Blood” is closer to the shameless, carefree exploitation of the latter than the atmosphere of suffocatingly pervasive depression of the former (case-in-point, the downright comical degree to which both Lionheart’s victims and the police are slow on the uptick to figure out what the hell is going on). You can’t feature a delighted, cackling Vincent Price serving “Titus Andronicus”-inspired dog pot pies and a “Cymbeline”-inspired beheading without at least acknowledging the utter over-the-top absurdity of the entire proceedings. Yet, there is a certain degree of satire, of thought-provoking criticism of, well, criticism, that ascend all this nonsense above the mere mindless and depraved. Amongst all the crazed monologuing of Lionheart as he walks his journey of over-the-top vengeance, one line actually stuck with me as he engaged in a “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired fencing duel with one of his potential victims, when he angrily exclaims,
How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because because you lack the ability to create yourselves!
Never mind the fact that Lionheart perhaps has far too lofty an opinion of his acting skill, he’s saying what countless actors must have been thinking for centuries. Indeed, with hardly an exception, the critics to whom Lionheart directs his theatrical revenge are old, white, pretentious, stuffy, flamboyant assholes, the very stereotypes invading the minds of those claiming (and celebrating) the increasing irrelevance of criticism, film, theater or otherwise, making this film oddly satirical and predictive of today’s society. That, combined with a Vincent Price who seems like he’s having an absolute blast in this performance, relishing his overacting and his increasingly absurd disguises, almost put you in Lionheart’s camp, make you identify more with him and his obsessive devotion to his craft than with his snobbish victims. Of course, Lionheart is a madman who must himself be punished in a genre film such as this lest this be nothing more than a 2-hour argument for and defense of straight-up vigilantism and no-questions-asked revenge, but pardon me if I don’t exactly mourn the line of victims who have to feel his wrath before everything is set “right.” And, if nothing else, this all got me in a major mood to read Shakespeare, to see what could so inspire such creative brutality. All in all, I had as much shameless fun watching this as Vincent Price clearly had starring in it, even if I’m willfully missing Lionheart’s entire point by writing about it.
I guess it does live up to the hype, the proof of that being that after it was over, I went to get my laundry out of the dryer and found myself shoving it into the basket and hurrying out of my dark basement as quickly as possible. So it certainly got under my skin, this despite an incredibly patternistic and predictable formula of ‘exposition by day, scares by night’. Despite that, though, such a defined pattern may have actually helped its status as a successful horror film, as you’re trained rather quickly on when to expect to be scared. When the lights go out and you’re watching Katie and Micah sleep, you’re expecting something spooky to happen, and for those events to get progressively spooky as the film progresses; your senses are so heightened during these night scenes, you’re paying so much attention to every little thing in the frame, wondering ‘did that picture frame move an inch or two? was that sound a rusty pipe or an otherworldly presence walking across the floor? did that bedspread really just blow upwards as if by a supernatural wind, or was I just imagining it?’, that when the obligatory jump moment happens, it scares the shit out of you that much more because you’re so tuned into the image and the silence before you. A rather ingenious use of the bomb-under-the-table formula, helped by a pleasantly surprising lack of those jump moments, so that their effect doesn’t become saturated and diminished. Unfortunately, it could’ve been so much better if I had actually given a damn about the two people being terrorized by this unseen demon, but that’s pretty much sabotaged by how generally annoying Kate and Micah are, Micah in particular for how his douchebaggery really knows no bounds. Fine, he’s supposed to be the reads-no-instructions, asks-for-no-directions sort, but it gets old after a while. So what, Katie, the source of the demon’s boner, needs her asshole boyfriend’s permission to call an exorcist? But I digress… I’m complaining about a lack of believable character behavior taking me out of a film’s supposed realism when this is a film about a couple being haunted by an invisible demonic force. Point is, in an age where ‘horror’ = ‘gory remake’, this was refreshingly simple.
It was very refreshing to see a “vampire movie” (emphasis on the ” “) that didn’t have fangs, or neck-biting, or seductive and beautiful ever-young people, and was largely devoid of cliché of the vampire variety of otherwise, which by now I’ve come to expect from the largely unique and cliché-free Guillermo del Toro (shame he dropped out of “The Hobbit.” That would’ve been cool ). Not since “Nosferatu” perhaps has a vampire film really, really focused on what a curse, not a blessing, it would be to be granted immortality by unnatural means. As the kindly old antique shopkeeper Jesus Gris becomes more and more immortal after being ‘bitten’ by the Cronos device, his thirst for blood at a most inopportune time during a black-tie New Years’ party and being chased by a dying, despicable industrialist and his bumbling nephew/henchman (Ron Perlman is one ugly motherfucker…) are the least of his worries. As his skin rots and falls off, his wife and everyone else in the world except his mute and adoring granddaughter believe him to be dead, and sunlight becomes poison, it becomes obvious to both Jesus and us just what a curse this is. He never asked for this fate when he found that metal scarab inside the statue in his shop, and yet here he is. That he, a good and previously unassuming man, must suffer everlasting youth in mind but certainly not in body, and not the greedy industrialist and now Jesus’s mortal enemy who certainly deserves such a fate, brings out the tragic aspects of that kind of immortality that much more, in that our sympathy is added on to the gruesome bodily decay. That del Toro pits old man against old man (hardly an expected protagonist-antagonist pairing in this day and age of fantasy/horror), uses a scene of a flamboyant mortician proudly dolling up a mangled body in stark detail for comic relief, and doesn’t exactly depict Jesus as the most innocent of victims, as he in fact revels in using the violent Cronos device for a time, certainly make this one more unique than you might think. When you consider the idea of the body wanting to die and the brain just not cooperating with that desire, there may be a fate worse than death after all.
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
Pretty nice piece of surrealism. It starts out pretty much identically to the way Nosferatu starts out, with the stranger entering an inn and practically begging for a ride to the title character’s dark and foreboding mansion, with nary a soul willing to take the job. Afterwards, when we come to the house itself, it is a clear precursor to “Citizen Kane’s” Xanadu – an impossibly expansive, impossibly dark and foreboding, impossibly empty main hall, in which Usher and his dying wife are practically swallowed. The editing of the film is fascinating and like poetry committed to screen, as the narration is intercut with the ocean or wild animals or the darkest recesses of the House itself. We see many shots of the wind blowing through the house, or the House practically coming to life, as Usher clearly slips more and more into madness as his wife falls more and more towards death. By the time the Fall comes, it’s not just of the House itself, but of the figurative “House of Usher”, as its lord is reduced to bobbing his head back and forth with a surreal smile on his face, as if expecting the spooky events that are transpiring to transpire exactly as they are. It’s pretty clear that something awfully weird is going on in this House…or perhaps nothing at all, and the mere feeling of weirdness is just a projection of the madness of Roderick Usher, and if that’s the case, Epstein did an admirable job of delving the viewer headlong into the mind of a madman.
Much of it was parlor politics, rightful heir, inheritance bullshit I couldn’t be bothered to care about, but my god Conrad Veidt was amazing. Sure his performance is aided by a prosthetic, much like Lon Chaney’s performance in The Penalty, but even then, you consider the way he had to emote solely with his eyes as his mouth was stuck in that haunting uber-smile, and he passed with flying colors. This film is awash with swashbuckling melodrama, especially towards the end when Homo the dog comes to the rescue, but there’s something awfully moving and relatable about the plight that Veidt’s Gwynplaine has been put in. Granted, the job market for men with severe facial deformities probably wasn’t very expansive in the 17th century, so performing as a sideshow attraction was the only way to go, and the show proprietor Ursus, though pretty much exploiting the poor man is kind and like a father to both Gwynplaine and his beloved, the blind Dea, and the common folk laugh at Gwynplaine but almost in a loving, entertained sort of way, but it’s still sad that a very real romance between the smiling freak and the blind girl can only be seen through the prism of a comical side show. The way Veidt and Mary Philbin share a tender moment, only to be interrupted by laughter from the unknowing crowd, and how Veidt crudely uses his hands to try to cover his ever-smiling mouth while his eyes convey more sadness than I may have ever seen before in a film performance, is just as, if not even more melodramatic yet unfathomably moving than the way Lillian Gish uses her fingers to force a smile on to her despaired face in Broken Blossoms. There’s also plenty of weird stuff going on, with the Duchess forced to marry Gwynplaine to retain her fortune – upset with the prospect of being made to look a fool, but also clearly intrigued and even sexually titillated by the deformed man in a disturbing scene that must have been very edgy and questionable in 1928. That scene, and the just as bizarre scene where Gwynplaine, decked out in regal, lordly attire, is introduced to the royal court, are the ones in which this film transcends the quasi-horror, common melodrama to come before and afterwards in the story, and the way Conrad Veidt’s eyes express unfathomable embarrassment, fear, and despair behind that eternal smile make this performance, and this film, into something special.
When you put aside “The Host”‘s not-so-subtle…okay, insultingly blatant…pro-environment, anti-American, anti-Formaldehyde message and the overall campiness and exploitativeness, you’ve got a surprisingly deep and fun and interestingly-constructed little monster movie in this, Korea’s all-time highest grossing movie. So all the Americans are either evil, cross-eyed, or both, the monster looks about as convincing as the Rancor in “Return of the Jedi” from 27 years ago, and just about everyone outside of the family of protagonists are little more than Victims #’s 1-8000, but it’s a gross monster movie trying and failing to make a grand political message (it’s kinda cute how hard it tries to be something special…), so shut up and watch and have fun. But, there is something interesting afoot when you get past the schlockiness, because call me crazy, but the family dynamic was done very, very well. Naturally just about every monster movie deals with the whole dysfunctional family being forced to come together in the face of adversity, but in terms of dysfunctional-family-being-forced-to-come-together-in-the-face-of-adversity movies, even ones where that adversity isn’t in the form of an amphibious man-eating squid, this one pretty much nailed it. The acting and the characters themselves are silly, no doubt, but it’s an interesting family dynamic regardless, with the shopkeeper father and his three grown-up, dysfunctional, completely different children coming together to save the ne’er-do-well son’s precocious young daughter from the vile clutches of the beast. Together, they’re the consummate fuck-ups, and they outwardly can’t stand each other as the college graduate son and bronze medal-winning archer daughter look down on their brother and ol’ dad has to come to his boy’s defense, but to see them not just have to, but want to put aside their differences to save that little girl is pretty damn endearing, and a surprisingly deep and unique family structure for what’s otherwise a man-eating monster movie. The parallel story structure is a major factor in keeping your attention, as the story shifts between the family’s inept but sincere attempt to rescue Gang-Du’s daughter while evading both the authorities and the title character, and the little girl surviving Bear Grylls-style in the monster’s lair. “The Host” isn’t exactly the pinnacle of great storytelling (after a rather thrilling climax, the very end is, well, :? . Also, I wasn’t aware that that was a typical result of a frontal lobotomy…), especially when those filthy, heartless Americans rear their ugly heads, but it still has that nice story of a family coming to terms with each other and their flaws, to go along with all the cool and gross death scenes. Also helps that the tone of the story is literally all over the place. One minute it’s a straight-up monster-jumps-out-of-the-corner horror movie (one of the stalest of all genres, but a few of the scares here were impressive), the next a family drama, the next a slapstick comedy. It’s a mess, sometimes to its detriment but more often just making the proceedings more interesting – one minute this movie would take itself way too seriously with the drama and the messages and what-not, and the next it’d just take the plunge into good, chintzy fun. Sometimes the humor works, and sometimes it’s really awkward (case and point the weird-ass…what do I call it…brawl? amongst the family members at a public memorial for the monster’s victims that was like a poor man’s Three Stooges). So often “The Host” is right on track as a surprisingly human drama amidst the backdrop of a monster haunting the Han River, other times it doesn’t know which way is left. What does that get you? Damn good television (because I watched it on a television…).
It’s no Pan’s Labyrinth (even though the story, image, and thematic similarities between the two are downright startling…the Spanish Civil War, the first image of a child lying on the floor bleeding, the most moral adult character in each film being brutally murdered as seen in an all-encompassing long shot, kids and the otherworldly winning out over grown-ups who just don’t understand, etc…), and in fact it’s very, very predictable (Michael Bay-like slow-mo explosion with the old man getting thrown back, seriously? and the villainous Jacinto is basically a Snidely Whiplash by the end, despite a late, beautiful moment where he muses over an old photo of his parents and for a moment seems human and even sympathetic…maybe my favorite moment in the entire film). And the ghost is actually pretty lame once del Toro decides to show it in all its glory (which is sooner than I had anticipated)…it had much more power to instill fear when it remained in the shadows, sighing, early in the film, but sadly not often. But damned if that watery basement set isn’t GORGEOUS, and one of the creepier sets I’ve seen, the way it’s lit and photographed, making for a great initial reveal of the ghost, as well as an outstanding climax (one thing’s certain, even if his screenwriting skills are suspect, del Toro’s artistry with the camera and sets and lighting and weirdities can turn even the most flawed screenplay, and what should be a boring Spanish history lesson, into something visually captivating). And the kids collectively give a great performance, even beyond the coolness of them going all Rambo at the end. This could’ve devolved into cliches of the new kid, the bully, the pipsqueak sidekick, etc., but the way they all band together for a common cause by the end is admirable, and one thing about the film that isn’tthat predictable. Started out slow, got much better as it went along, even if the appearance and nature of the ghostly Santi didn’t follow suit. I liked this
The young opera starlet, Mary Philbin’s Christine’s, agonizingly slow creep-up to and unmasking of Lon Chaney’s Phantom is arguably one of the most famous moments in all of silent film and horror film, and rightly so when you lay your eyes on that grotesque mouth, bulging, glassy eyes, and noseless face, all thanks to a makeup job that was the creation of Chaney himself. It is one of those indispensable moments in cinema history, and apparently director Rupert Julian, et al knew as they were filming “The Phantom of the Opera” that this one moment would live forever…or at the very least they were trying their absolute hardest to make it into something special with an endless lead-up to the big moment. The plot is already thin enough, as the deformed Phantom, living in the dank caverns beneath the Paris Opera House, falls for the young singer Christine from afar and manipulates the goings-on of the Opera to further her career and to possess her for his own deranged self, but miraculously that plot is made even thinner when you consider that practically ever moment of the first portion of the film is devoted to people talking about the Phantom…what he looks like, where he lives, how batshit crazy he is. “His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light – like holes in a grinning skull!”, one man says. “His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin strung tight over protruding bones!” “His nose – there is no nose!” And on and on – so much of the beginning of the film is just…this. Just dancers and stagehands and well-to-dos going about their everyday lives within the Opera House, and apparently the entirety of their everyday lives involves telling each other ghost stories about the Phantom and chasing each other around. It’s like a more bizarre version of that long stretch of “The Red Shoes” that simply shows the dancers and what-not going about their daily routine, only in that film they actually danced, and here they just fuck around and worry about the Phantom. Sure there’re some wonderful images, like the Phantom’s silhouette as he lures Christine towards that mirror, but these are mostly either overused or just thrown in there. On the whole, this film has spurts of visual brilliance, but is just very, very uneven.
It’s so incredibly shallow and without depth and purely there to build up the mystery of the Phantom, to make you want to see this hideous face that’s being described for you in infinite, lurid detail (when you have Christine, long after the Phantom lures her into his underground kingdom, exclaim “You…You are the Phantom!” in one of cinema’s greatest no-shit moments, abandon all hope of depth and subtlety, ye who enter here). It’s rather tasteless and damn near shameless…but for once, the actual visual scare lives up to the hype. I’d seen Chaney’s famously done-up face millions of time out of context before, so the shock value unfortunately wasn’t there, but regardless, it’s still a damned ugly, scary face. “Feast your eyes!”, the Phantom says, “Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” (there’re a lot of exclamation points in the title cards, in case you haven’t noticed). Well, we pretty much already have in how much the face we’re now seeing has been described to us, so you don’t need to tell us twice.
The entire purpose of the film to this point has been to make our mouth water in anticipation of seeing this face, and now that we have, it’s no surprise that the film basically comes crashing down afterwards. Sure there’s some cool stuff to be had, like the primitive use of colors during the big ball to showcase the Phantom’s red costume, and the underground, watery maze that the Phantom calls home is imm ense and detailed and paved the way for many cinematic dungeons to come, but otherwise it’s just Christine begging her doofus boy-toy Raoul to protect her, the Phantom looking on with mad envy, and lots of underground chase scenes. It’s all dull as hell once the chief purpose of slowly revealing the Phantom is done with and the shock value of the Phantom’s appearance wears off, but despite that, the power of Chaney’s mannerism-driven performance rarely wanes. Was there ever another actor more willing to go through every pain and mutilation imaginable to deliver a great performance? What Chaney did to his legs in “The Penalty,” he does to his face in “The Phantom of the Opera.” It’s all histrionics, but there’s something undeniably powerful when he madly proclaims his obsessed love for Christine while trapping Raoul in a flooding chamber right beneath, and then sees a crazed mob coming towards his safe haven as he maniacally points towards and taunts them and cackles away, as he either considers himself invincible, welcomes his grisly fate, or a little bit of both. And dare I say it, there’s a tiny bit of profundity in the performances of Chaney and Mary Philbin, that look of ravenous curiosity on Philbin’s face as she moves her fingers closer and closer to that mask, followed by a look of histrionic yet powerful terror right up there with the likes of Lillian Gish. But ultimately, this is all about one moment, one noseless and scrunched-up face – a superficial novelty of a film solely meant to titillate and scare, and in a later decade maybe, just maybe, would’ve found the time to actually focus on the sexual and psychological tension and implications that this seemingly simple story seems rife for, but in this early era of cinematic experimentation, at least it got something right.