Saturday, December 27, 2008
Okay... the title is horrible. And the DVD cover, while adequate, still isn't exactly something that jumps off the shelf and chases you around the video store...
... but this D2DVD sleeper had me at the opening credits (with ironic use of the Siouxsie track, "Into a Swan") and kept me smiling through the final line.
Granted, I smile at weird things, but...
One of the worst things about the Christmas season is the damned music that sparkles from every public music system. But in a supermarket in podunk Buck Lake, the music becomes the last thing on the shoppers' minds as a vanload of paramilitary toughs roll in and start capping some folks in the aisles...
... but just some folks.
Things can't get any worse, and then they do as the flick shifts into The Thing Hidden in the Mist. Shot on HD (and looking pretty damn' swell), Alien Raiders is a surprisingly entertaining throwback to the early eighties creature features. There's some sly black humor at work, but the emphasis is on keeping the suspense and intermittent mayhem sustained.
Director Ben Rock (part of the original Blair Witch posse) doesn't seem to have had much of a budget to work with here, but delivers more than satisfactorily with what he had on hand. The creature effects are old school prosthetics, with a minimum of CGI wankery.
And with a cast of relatively unfamiliar faces that hit their marks as well (if not better) than the Albas and Gellars that are polluting mainstream horror films, there's no public image getting in the way of characterization. Not to mention that this puppy doesn't let itself get bogged down with needless backstory...
... it hits the ground running and doesn't stop until it rolls through the exit.
Although I'm not saying that it's a new classic. The momentum gets a little slack towards the end, and the "twist" is pretty obvious once our heroes start going all Bush Administration metaphor to figure out who's with us or who's with them...
... although the poignancy of the final line does work to offset that minor weakness. Ultimately, there's a certain Shane Black snap to the dialogue that makes this one stand out.
But hell... I woulda been happy goin' crosstown and paying to see this in the theatre. If more D2DVD entries were this polished, I'd be even more happy staying home and letting the movie come to me.
Images swiped from the flick's MySpace (heh) page.
Friday, December 5, 2008
... if there is an afterlife, there was an e-ticket waiting at the gate for Uncle Forry, to make a beeline towards the table seated with Vinnie, Boris, Lon, Jr., Bela, Lorre, Cushing, Rathbone, Atwill, Wray, Agar...
Um, well... you get the point.
... to keep going 'til he got to Lon Chaney, Sr.
Personally, I woulda skidded to a halt right at Wray, but that's just me.
There's been a hell of a mad monster party waiting for the old man, and he richly deserves it.
Axed For It, even.
Friday, October 17, 2008
What the hell is up with Hollywood, anyway? Take a pretty damned good (but still very basic) horror film, set out to do a shot-by-shot remake... and still choose some schmuck who could fuck up someone else’s wet dream to totally screw the pooch.
Last year’s cult phenom [REC] was that rare bird, a genuinely scary horror flick. Maybe at this point it's hard to live up to the buzz, but I was lucky enough to catch it early enough that I was without seriously elevated expectations. In some regards, [REC] shouldn't have worked for me. I knew all along where it was going and where the jolts were going to be... but damn, they still worked. Mostly I think it was because of the foley work (keep the viewer disoriented enough, someone could just say "Boo!" and it'd get a jump)...
... and the perfectly adorable lead Manuela Velasco. You knew she was screwed, but kept hoping otherwise.
But mostly [REC] worked as a down n' dirty li'l horror film that did exactly what it set out to do, poke the lizard part of the brain until it squirmed. No plot or backstory to get in the way, looking like it was shot over a weekend on a Canon XL2 and some pocket change, it fits my theory of what a contemporary horror film should be to a T.
Of course, since it was a Spanish movie it couldn’t be sold to American audiences because … well, subtitles and all that. So Hollywood remade it. Pretty much shot-for-shot… except for some leaden padding thrown in to bring the flick up from a perfectly efficient 80 minutes to a wearisome 90.
"Say... why don't we use the final shot of the film in our ad campaign?"
Biting-on-tinfoil, sorority girl-cum-TV reporter Angela (Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter) and her cameraman tag along with the crew of a fire station as they go about their typical shift, until the typical goes all FUBAR when a routine call suddenly involves neo-zombies infesting an apartment complex. Well, rabies-crazed gut crunchers shrieking out of dark shadows and the naught, but same thing. And apparently the authorities have a zombie contingency plan, ’cause before you know it, the place is sealed off with everyone inside being picked off one-by-one by the frothing critters and then jumping up to join in on the mayhem.
As a remake, Quarantine misses what made [REC] so effective. Part of the problem is Carpenter, whose character is such a snotty twit that within five minutes you want something really fucking bad to jump out of the shadows and make her STFU already. A bigger part of the FAIL is the director. One has to wonder what was going up the Sony suits noses as they handed over the reins to John Dowdle, whose The Poughkeepsie Tapes (another found footage riff, this time about camera-happy serial killers) had been freshly laughed off the screen at audience previews.
And give the idiot (and his brother) a screenplay credit for... what? Paying someone to translate the original script? Of course, what's to be expected. I mean, there's a reason why The Poughkeepsie Tapes hasn't hit the screens like promised, right? Quarantine shows why. Buggering up the whole video verité approach, this feels about as real as a SNL sketch. And you have to realize we're getting into a interesting set of affairs when Euro actors can act Hollywood cosplayers beneath the table.
I bought the game in [REC]. I didn't buy one second of Quarantine... the actors didn't sell it, and the director didn't pimp it.
But then, I'm of the school that thinks that if you throw too much money at a horror film, the focus shifts to making the money back rather than delivering the goods (that is, aiming for the shallow expectations of a mass market rather than the niche market with higher expectations).
The sad thing is that I was actually sorta looking forward to the remake... in all reality; the original is only accessible to a very narrow market (subs and all). Business-wise (admittedly, countering myself here) it makes perfect sense to do a shot-by-shot remake...
... provided that the director sits down and deconstructs what made the source material work. I didn't get the vibe that Mr. Poughkeepsie was that savvy. Or that maybe his horror headspace is with serial killers, and not zombies.
Too bad, really. [REC] had some minor problems of its own that could have been tweaked for the better in the remake. The third act gets a little silly, what with some Vatican cover-up providing a tenuous source for the outbreak, recounted by a magic reel-to-reel tape deck that manages to work without a power source. But [REC] pulls up to recover nicely in the final stretch with a perfectly ghastly night-vision reveal of Patient Zero.
Admittedly, by alluding to a doomsday cult instead of quasi-demonic possession, Quarantine grounds the Why of the matter a little more satisfactorily. Unfortunately, that’s the only finessing that comes off favorable. And they keep the magic tape deck... although the device gives out absolutely zero information this time.
But I suppose the biggest weakness of [REC] is the ubiquitous Shaky-Cam. Usually, the conceit doesn’t bother me. It goes with the territory of the mis en scene of video verité.
But with Quarantine, Mr. Poughkeepsie takes the Shaky-Cam to a whole 'nother level… or down to, as if his cameraman was taping the proceedings duct-taped to the back of a bucking gimp. Seriously, it’s hard to swallow that the character behind the camera would even qualify to be a volunteer at a public access station, let alone being on a payroll as some supposedly hot-shot camera jockey.
In addition to the epileptic framing, we also get the new-and-improved Blurro-Cam, with a picture that swims in-n-out of focus constantly… except in the flick’s most ludicrous scene, where the cameraman pounds in the face of one of the infected with the business end of his camera, and the equipment suddenly decides that it has a deep focus setting... the blood on the lens as crisp as the mayhem being inflicted. Not to mention that that must be one badass camera to take that kind of abuse.
Actually, that was the deal breaker right there. One really, really stupid moment that sums up the project itself…
… in deep focus.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Night of the Living Dead made its debut on October 1st of 1968... and forever changed what was on the ol' undead menu. No more shambling around, following someone else's orders... the zombie subgenre was given a new life, so to speak. And for that matter, changed the rules on what you were getting in for when you walked (or drove) into a theater to watch a silly ol' horror film.
Being six or seven when I saw it on a drive-in screen back in the twilight of the Summer of Love, I'm sure the flick did its share of hardwiring on my impressionable li'l brain...
... so many thanks to George Romero, John Russo, Russell Streiner, Judith O'Dea, Bill Hinzman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Rudy Ricci, Chilly Billy, George Kosana...
... and a special deep red rose in memory of Duane Jones, Karl Hardman and Keith Wayne.
Monday, June 9, 2008
October 1st will mark the 40th anniversary of when George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead began to flicker across drive-in and grindhouse screens across America, irrevocably breaking the musty template of horror and replacing it with a grittier, nastier new one.
With the 1968 release of the ground-breaking (ahem) film, Romero not only redefined the zombie film, but with the film’s unheard of (until then) nihilistic ending, immediately altered the game plan of the entire horror genre. Suddenly, it was possible – even expected – that everyone would die in the end. But in the context of its time, that ending can never be topped… the audience took a bullet in the head along with doomed Ben.
It also opened up the horror film as a vehicle for metaphor, as critics gradually approached the film as a take on the civil rights movement and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family. Whether or not that was intentional on Romero’s part is debatable, but with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the satiric element was firmly in place as the zombies shambled about a shopping mall in the drop-dead threads of the ultimate consumers.
In the ensuing years, Romero’s zombie mythos also evolved into being an inadvertent snapshot of the era in which they were released, developing not so much on the satire but by the technique and general definition of each entry. The newsreel vérité of Night, the disco candy colors of Dawn, the early-eighties military industrial gloss (and the emphasis of effects over content) of Day of the Dead.
And in a way, as each film is a mirror held to the era in which it was made, they're also a snapshot of where Romero was at in the same period.
By 1985, Romero was a captive of his fanbase, one that seemed defined by the more vocal gorehounds who declared in no uncertain terms that a Romero film slapped with an R-rating instead of Unrated was not a Romero film worth seeing. Which in these days of the studio fondness for PG-13 horror films seems like another case of not knowing when you’re having it good.
By the time he reached the nineties, Romero seemed to be spinning his wheels as he fell in line with the rest of the entertainment industry and succumbed to what seemed to be the easy currency found in a remake of Night.
It took twenty years before Romero seemed to realize that a handful of rabid letters (in the days before mass rabid posts on message boards) to magazines with such silly names as Fangoria shouldn’t define his oeuvre, and so he took The Suits’ money to deliver an R-rated zombie film, 2005’s Land of the Dead.
But after a twenty year absence, the zombie film he delivered had become more self-aware and obvious, the filmmaker’s message wielded like a sledge to the detriment of the film being successful as a horror film. It didn't help that he had apparently succumbed to a cinematic Stockholm Syndrome, obviously empathizing more with the lurching dead than with his breathing protagonists.
While admittedly the relatively large budget provided by Universal (ironically enough, kicked down after the multiplex success of the 2004 remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead) allowed him to deliver a more polished entry, with name actors and plenty of CGI to quicken the filmmaking process. But the fourth entry in his mythos seemed a shadow of what the man had achieved before. The comfort of a relatively big budget leeched the innate hunger of the low-budget process that conversely adds to the desperation and fear of failure that plays itself on the screen. The fans weren’t happy and they were vocal about it… and in an era of the immediate communication of the internet and text messages, that unhappiness had a hotline that essentially closed the film on opening night.
The sting of that rejection comes through loud and clear with last year’s fifth Dead film, Diary of the Dead, which hit the shelves on DVD after mostly bypassing the multiplex circuit.
Here Romero returns to his roots, grabbing the single camera and hitting the ground running in the independent fashion he started out from back in the twilight of the Sixties.
A prequel of sorts to the first entry, and shot in the video vérité style of The Blair Witch Project, the film purports to be the found footage of a team of young filmmakers that find that while they’re shooting a monster movie as a student project in rural Pennsylvania, a zombie apocalypse is suddenly unreeling everywhere where one person can bite another. They jump into their Winnebago and hit the road, documenting the chaos and human element as they roll along.
As a zombie film it doesn’t match the roll-up-the-sleeves hunger of Romero’s early films, and in a lot of ways the subgenre he single-handedly created has left him faceless in the shambling masses of the knockoffs. But as its own entity, Diary is a more than adequate part of the mythos.
For the first time since Night the shambling dead actually look menacing, as opposed to the arms-outstretched cartoons caught in their day job uniforms that has been the Romero signature since Dawn. While the satire (this time around casting a weary eye on the explosion of the “Look at Me!” media) is admittedly as heavy-handed as in Land, Romero softens the delivery with an almost bemused approach. While not exactly a comedy, Diary still acknowledges the underlying absurdity of the situation...
... of both a zombie apocalypse, and of his role in the mythos he spawned.
It is his most humor-driven entry of the series... and when you step back and look at everything after Night, all of them can be taken as pitch-black comedies. No new news there, of course. Dawn and Day had their comedy, but humor was more stealth... a balance maintained in order to please the fanbase. But in the years that separated Day and Land, I think (armchair psychology, here) that Romero became more comfortable with his situation... that he had hit a home run with his first swing, and no matter how much he wanted to play another metaphor, everyone put him back in his place.
He made a monster movie to get noticed, and he got noticed like nothing else. And a very special place was reserved for him...
... making zombie movies.
Not just zombie movies, but by the demands of his fanbase unrated ones that trapped him into not really making them the way he wanted. The implication seeming to be that Romero's narratives were superfluous, that his professional purpose was to serve as a conduit to showcase Tom Savini's gore effects, to top what had topped the entries before. It must have been frustrating. He had things to say, observations on the world around him... that he was only allowed to really say through the lowliest form of subgenres, the zombie flick.
There's a certain absurdity to his situation, and I think that he's more at ease with letting the absurdism come out in his forays, these days. There was a lot of stealth comedy in Land, such things as the zombie cop taking a chunk of a looter's arm, or "a bite out of crime.”
Diary is the next step towards Romero just saying screw all and making a flat-out zombie comedy. Maybe it'll be perceived as a case of biting the hand that feeds him, but where he's at in his life, I don't think he's all that hungry anymore.
So... Diary of the Dead is what it is. A zombie movie made by someone that hasn't been able to really escape that niche for the last forty years. He's the Zombie Dude, but (like how the Ramones never really seemed able to capitalize on the movement they spawned) he's never really reaped the bennies for the mythos he created.
So at this point, it comes across as if he's making the zombie flicks he wants to make. And laughing at the absurdity of it all.
More power to him.