Sunday, 19 October 2014
The best thing about Zombeavers is that it isn't much more than its title implies. It creates a toxic spill in a remote area then plops a bunch of college kids in a cabin right next to it. Voila - zombie beavers attacking young co-eds. It also stays true to its 80s horror antecedents by making most of the gore and effects practical. CGI beavers would have ruined the film entirely, whereas these stuffed critters with partial animatronic characteristics and clunky tails do the trick nicely. When they come crashing through floor boards, they almost feel like they could chew your foot off. Of course, they are also just slightly ridiculous enough to laugh at when they suddenly show up in a bathtub or at the front door. Especially with their light blue glowing eyes...
The worst thing about Zombeavers is, well, that it isn't much more than its title implies. Now that shouldn't be taken necessarily as a criticism...It's just that when the film works, it works so very well. So when it doesn't, it's somewhat disappointing. The film handles its action sequences very well and has moments of pretty inspired humour & gore, but then there are several scenes of bland, lengthy or even pointless chatter between the characters. Given the funny outtakes at the end of the film (some of which felt a bit like those line-o-rama special features many comedies have these days) and considering Judd Apatow, David Wain and others are thanked, I couldn't help but want a bit more ooomph to the script. In fairness, my complaints are along the lines of wanting more than I'm really entitled to or should in any way expect. But it's to the film's credit that at some point - I did expect more.
Another thing about Zombeavers is that it sometimes is actually a bit more than its title implies. Think you know who's going to get it next? Think the kills will all be based on levels of morality? Think you know how the beaver bite transforms its victim? Probably not...Not that the movie rolls out loads of surprises, but just enough so you aren't completely sure of what the next scene may bring. One might even say that there's just enough subversion of this type of genre to raise the eyebrows of those looking for simply a genre-throwback. On top of that, the cast does quite well with the material and only falter during some of those slower spots (though those moments could easily be "blamed" on pacing issues or editing). All three of the leading ladies (Cortney Palm, Rachel Melvin & Lexi Atkins) acquit themselves quite nicely through tears, screams, laughs and loads of prosthetics.
In the end, it's a movie about beavers who become zombies. That alone should be enough, but you get more (including a great final "stinger"). So go enjoy Zombeavers.
Appreciate Being Chilled, Distressed & Entertained?
A Barrel Containing Demonic Enticing Fun.
However you want to say it, ABCs Of Death 2 easily outpaces its predecessor in pulling together 26 stories (from 26 different directors/director teams) marked with mishaps and killings. When I saw the first in this series (let's assume right now that number 3 will be in the works soon if not already), it was easy enough to count the solid segments on one hand. With their follow-up, the producers have gathered a completely new group of directors (many of whom have had films at previous After Dark festivals) and reversed the trend. I can only think of 4-5 stories that didn't work for me or had major issues. If your 125 minute anthology film is firing on all cylinders for 80% of its runtime, that's a damn good ratio.
The lesser stories certainly stand out...P is for P-P-P-P Scary may have been trying for something different, but seemed out of place, unfocused and intentionally somewhat annoying. L is for Legacy suffered hugely from easily the worst acting and special effects of the entire omnibus. A shame since you don't see a great deal of genre fare from Africa (at least not in any potentially wide released film). There was an attempt to try things from a different angle as the story uses an African myth of the supernatural avenging the wrongly accused, but its execution is simply poor. And I is for Invincible failed to do anything interesting with its tale of a family trying to get rid of their rich matriarch.
These lesser segments impact the flow of the film somewhat, but even so, they are spread out and never drag things down. At 4-5 minutes a segment, this enables the 2 hour film to move at a pretty brisk pace. It all starts well with an amateur assassinator's idealized view of himself and a pompous British personality getting bested by mutated badgers. It's at this point that the audience started to settle into their seats and realize that talk of the sequel being an improvement was bearing itself out. The mix of styles starts to show here too - while 'B' is a stripped down "single shot" from a TV cameraman, both 'A' and 'C' have top notch production values and special effects. D is for Deloused is a grotesque, but fascinating stop-motion animation (very similar to a Tool video) and Bill Plympton uses the letter 'H' to contribute a manic wordless hand-drawn view of the deleterious effects that can arise from the head games couples play. A high point of the film is its actual centre: a slo-mo mountain of a man terrorizing a sidewalk in M is for Mastigate and Larry Fessenden's marvelous convergence of events in N is for Nexus.
Apart from the 'P' segment, the final half of the film is consistently strong mixing in a zombie courtroom, some torture porn karma and a reminder of the evil that children's musical instruments can cause. Of particular note are 3 segments that bordered on perfection. Juan Martinez Moreno's S is for Split takes a harmless call home, works it towards a particularly malevolent outcome then spins it to something wholly unexpected. As fun as Moreno's Game Of Werewolves was (an After Dark closing night selection a few years ago), this is a step up in filmmaking. Continuing his own high-quality streak and wonderful 80s practical effects, Steve Kostanski (of Astron-6 fame) brings us W is for Wish and uses it to explore what the world of a Saturday morning toy commercial's characters might inhabit. And finally, Z is for Zygote takes to the extreme the old-fashioned idea that a woman must remain a perpetually youthful looking baby factory - and does so while being funny and really damn disturbing at the same time.
In all, ABCs Of Death 2 showcases a wide variety of talent and creativity. If this is a harbinger of what we may see in the horror genre in the next few years, we could be in for another renaissance. In other words:
Friday, 17 October 2014
What defines a "crowd pleaser"? Is it a movie with a perfect mix of numerous genres and styles? Lots of laughs? Characters that become endearing to the audience? A happy ending? Depending on the audience, atmosphere and expectations, those elements may or may not work at any given moment, so you have to look at a movie in the context of the people you see it with. So taking last night's opening night crowd into consideration, you could easily say that Housebound pleased the vast majority of them quite extensively. I spoke to a variety of people afterwards and didn't hear a single negative thing about it. Not a bad word. Not even a shrug.
That's not to say it's perfect...There are some very familiar moments at the beginning of the film and a few "surprises" that are telegraphed. But those recognizable beats start to slide into a fine rhythm and before you know it, the movie has found a solid groove and has the audience locked into it. Even during some of its early scenes, the story and its strongly-realized characters still inject some humourous and interesting turns to keep you interested. After an attempted ATM robbery gone wrong, an angry 20-something woman named Kylie is put under house-arrest at her mother's place and begins to experience some of the house hauntings her Mom has talked about for years (and boy can this woman talk...and talk...and talk...). The security guard entrusted with checking up on her (the electronic bracelet on her ankle keeps her honest) doesn't help matters by immediately trying to record the psychic energy of the house. So Kylie is trapped in a house surrounded by a babbling mother, a naive guard and some kind of rather annoying presence.
The setup is a nice novel one, but it excels in two very key areas: comedic timing and characters. Though not a full out laugh-fest, the film makes the most out of mundane situations (a restroom break), mundane objects (you may approach your cheese grater with a bit more trepidation in the future) and oft-used plot points (old psychiatric hospitals, things on the other side of a wall and mother/daughter relationships are all spun in slightly different directions) by simply hitting the funny notes at precisely the right times with the right accents. A dry reply, a well-placed sound affect or just an expression is all it takes in certain parts of this movie to deliver very satisfying laughter. Speaking of timing, the scares are executed nicely with several jumps well-earned and moments of mounting tension scattered throughout.
Housebound is also populated by some great characters brought to life by a talented cast. In particular, Rima Te Wiata as Kylie's Mom Miriam perfectly captures everything both adorable and aggravating about your parents. She also has such a great, pleasant and expressive face that it brings to life even the most basic of scenes. Morgana O'Reilly plays the badass angry daughter with fiery energy and keeps every interaction with just about anybody at a DEFCON threat level of at least 4 or 5. The supporting players do just about everything asked of them as well with nary a miss in tone or line reading. These are not perfect people, but they sure end up being both likeable and interesting. And that's sure to please just about any crowd.
Monday, 13 October 2014
As I've mentioned before, the Toronto After Dark film festival is quite close to my heart...I was there at its birth in 2006 and have attended every single one of its birthday parties since - whether it was in the old or new Bloor Cinemas, the Toronto Underground or in its recent digs at the Scotiabank. Every year has had its share of great and good films (and yes, a few not so great ones too) as well as memorable moments like the Funky Forest screening, the storm that blew out a projector, the Black Dynamite screening, the after after-parties, closing down Pauper's Pub every night, and some damn fine Q&As by directors who are genuinely excited to be there.
Even though just about every film festival that has ever existed says "this will be our biggest year ever!", all signs certainly point to this being a big one in the history of Toronto After Dark. With just a few days to go before the festival kicks off (it runs from Oct. 16-24 and screens 19 feature length films and 28 shorts), there are already 3 sell-outs and, according to their web site, apparently another 3 about to sell out. Good news for the fest to be sure, but not too surprising when you look at their lineup (all trailers can be viewed from the festival's schedule page):
Thursday October 16th
Housebound - This opening night film from New Zealand promises a haunted house set of thrills. Apparently it can back up that claim with an award from another festival as well as numerous good reviews floating around. I haven't seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, so I'm pretty psyched for this opener and expect the fest will kick off with a rollicking crowd pleaser.
Suburban Gothic - Described as a "ghost-hunting horror comedy", this could go either way - specifically because of the two words "horror" and "comedy" being put together. Oh sure there have been plenty of good ones, but if the director and cast can't hit the proper tones, it can all fall apart. The cast looks pretty solid, and since TAD has been pretty good at kicking their festival off strongly, I'll stay on the optimistic side for this evening.
Friday October 17th
Hellmouth - A portal to hell horror starring Stephen McHattie? Sign me up! Written by Tony Burgess of Pontypool fame? I'm doubly excited! Wait...Didn't Burgess also write last year's abysmal (at least in my opinion) Septic Man? OK, let's call it even and just say I'm singly excited...
ABCs Of Death 2 - I'm a big fan of horror anthology films, so the first ABCs Of Death sounded like manna from heaven. Turned out to be a mixed bag of Halloween treats - mostly of that crappy candy corn variety. To be fair, there were several really strong stories and rumour has it that this second installment has much more quality control on it and an even more interesting list of directors.
Saturday October 18th
Shorts After Dark - Each of the feature length films has a Canadian short film playing before it and the quality level is usually quite high (which says a great deal for our filmmakers and the selection committee), but each year the festival also devotes an entire screening to shorts from across the globe. So you'll get a good solid 90 minutes or so of internationally spiced horror and genre that has been culled from a wide set of submissions. I've rarely been disappointed in these collections, so don't skimp on the festival - go see the shorts!
Zombeavers - The Saturday evening of the festival is always reserved for a pair of zombie films since it immediately follows the annual zombie walk through the city. This makes for a helluvan interesting crowd in attendance, but can lead to some dicey movies. There's usually at least one good zombie film per year, but since the festival shows two...Well, let's just say there are no guarantees. Will Zombeavers manage to keep the brain-hungry hoardes satisfied? It's a 50-50 shot, but with an entertaining audience, it's worth a shot.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead - The screening of the first Dead Snow (easiest elevator pitch ever: "Nazi Zombies") went over like gangbusters and I've no doubt this follow-on film will too. With the same director at the helm and the saga continuing pretty much from where it left off, the new film reportedly ups all the gore, humour and surprises. Though I mentioned above that I'm usually concerned about "horror comedies", I'm less so in this case. They've shown they can hit the right mix.
Sunday October 19th
The Drownsman - A young woman's fear of drowning manifests itself into a killer called The Drownsman in this Canadian thriller. If the film plays up the psychological aspects and doesn't focus solely on (as the description states) "a new unstoppable force of a killer", it could be interesting. Granted, it could be interesting as a straight up slasher as well, but the chances aren't as good. Either way, I'm happy to support Canadian horror/genre film, so fingers crossed.
Wolves - Let's be honest...That's not a great title for a werewolf film, now is it? Hopefully there's a bit more originality in the script (by David Hayter - writer of the first 2 X-Men movies) and action scenes which are promised to be "non-stop". It stars two known entities in Lucas Till (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and Jason Momoa (Game Of Thrones) so that might drive some ticket sales.
Late Phases - Sunday gives us 2 werewolf movies in a row as Late Phases puts Nick Damici up against a beast ravaging a retirement community. It's a better title than the other werewolf movie, so I'll give it points for that and assume it has something new to offer as well.
Monday October 20th
Open Windows - Though starring Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey, the main draw to Open Windows for me is director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial). His Q&As are known to be almost as entertaining as his films, so let's hope he makes it to Toronto for this screening of his "cyber-thriller". Yeah, I had a hard time writing "cyber-thriller", but I have to think that Vigalondo could do something interesting, dark and not obvious in this arena.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter - This story of a Japanese woman who totally believes that the movie Fargo was a true story has itself confused about as many people as Fargo did itself. Though there apparently was a real Japanese woman who did end up dying in Minnesota (about a decade ago), the veracity of the details about her searching for the buried money from the film are, ahem, somewhat in question. Now this "true story" of a woman who believed a "true story" was a true story has been turned into a movie. And a Sundance award winner at that (for Musical Score). The only thing I believe is that I'll be there to see it.
Tuesday October 21st
Predestination - Ethan Hawke stars in this too-easily-compared-to-Looper-and-Minority-Report sci-fi tale of a cop who is tasked with stopping crimes before they happen. It's still a great premise that could easily lead to more interesting spins on it, so let's hope we get something unique.
Time Lapse - More sci-fi (TAD has quite nicely tried to make theme nights wherever possible) covering yet another concept that has been around the block a few times - a camera that shows photos of people's futures causes alterations in timelines. Again, one can only hope that the great concept inspires a novel approach to it.
Wednesday October 22nd
Refuge - And speaking of well-worn concepts, how's about some post-apocalyptic goodness? Another double dose theme night kicks off with what sounds like a fairly generic description (scavengers threaten a family in a gloomy post-war landscape). My guess is that this will live or die on the strength of its characters.
Wyrmwood - OK, so the short little blurbs for film festival screenings almost always over-promise, but how can you resist "insane, action-packed, post-apocalyptic, zombie slaying road movie from Australia!". Yeah, neither can I...Word on the street is that it's a keeper.
Thursday October 23rd
The Town That Dreaded Sundown - Having just recently watched the original 1976 film which "documented" the actual slayings that occurred in Texarkana in the mid-1940s, I'm curious how this "reinvention" of the story will pan out. The original was a weird synthesis of slasher/docudrama/slapstick, so hopefully this one picks a few less genres to inhabit...
Why Horror? - Though I've never been a big fan of Rue Morgue overall, I give them credit for attempting a documentary which looks at why many of us enjoy horror films. There's plenty of ground to cover and plenty of big names to interview (they've apparently pulled in a good number of them), so for a genre that has such a variety of sub-genres and approaches to the form, it has potential. My concern is based on whether Rue Morgue will shrink the scope of "horror" to tackle mostly the gorier aspects of it (something I don't shy away from, but find is only one of many possible characteristics of horror).
Friday October 24th
Let Us Prey - Liam Cunningham (another Game Of Thrones alum) plays a stranger who arrives at a dead end police station and becomes involved in a stand-off with demonic forces. Hard to judge, but last year's closing night double feature was pretty damn solid, so let's assume they held on to this specifically for the final Friday night .
The Babadook - The closing film of the fest is one of the more anticipated in recent memory as the scuttlebutt says it's quite fantastic. After reading a children's pop-up book, a mother and her son are haunted by the presence they seem to have just set free. Seems pretty straightforward, but I'm hoping for a creepy on-the-edge-of-your-seat barnburner. I hope I'm not over-hyping this Aussie flick, but I have a good feeling about it.
I'm excited every year as I approach opening night of Toronto After Dark because I know the fun that awaits: goofy/fun/scary/thrilling movies (and yes, a few that are none of those things), great conversation & arguments about those movies and always at least a couple of memorable moments outside the films themselves. Starting Thursday, it'll just be a question of when they will occur.
Let's dig into a few more tasty horror treats...
Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (Bob Clark - 1973) - I'm not sure how this "let's get our friends together and make a movie" movie didn't completely collapse into itself, but it somehow stayed afloat even if about 70% of the frame at any given time seems to be complete blackness. Fortunately director Bob Clark (Black Christmas and a c.v. of films almost as diverse as Robert Wise) wisely decided to clad his group of friends in brightly coloured clothing for their night time adventure through an island cemetery for fun & games and inspiration for their play. None of them seem to like each other, so calling them "friends" might be a stretch, but they all seem to follow the egotistical and nasty director who performs a number of rituals over the graveyard. Without really meaning to, he ends up accidentally waking a whole assortment of dead folks. The last 20 minutes of the movie actually work quite decently with the troupe trying to battle and escape the zombies, but it's a bit of a challenge to get there.
The Monster Club (Roy Ward Baker - 1980) - Yet another of those great horror compilation films, this one has the huge bonus of having both Vincent Price and John Carradine in the wrap-around story. The club of the title is where Price's vampire brings his recent victim (Carradine) to regale him with a few tales of monstrous behaviour. The film gives itself a bit more room to stretch its stories by including only three of them and fortunately they all hit the mark nicely and retain the right tone of dark humour with their horrific situations. The Monster Club itself falls victim to some early 80s cheese in the form of the performing "rock music" acts, but it serves to keep things hopping. Price is just a joy to watch and you really wish there was more of him, but when has that not been the case?
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce - 1976) - As a mix between narrated docudrama, slasher and low-rent comedy, this is an odd film...The murders in the film are apparently based on true events from the mid-40s and which were indeed committed by some hooded phantom stranger around the Texas-Arkansas border. Those crime sequences are handled reasonably well with a strong sense of menace and an imposing killer. The rest of the film, though, has little consistency with occasionally glacial pacing, completely useless details and a bumbling patrolman who is used at all the wrong times to bring unnecessary levity to the story. It's still of interest and I'm curious about the new version of this coming out soon, but this could have been a classic 70s thriller instead of a curio.
Gurozuka (Yoichi Nishiyama - 2005) - It's hard to be fully invested in a movie when the characters continuously act stupidly - something that is pretty consistent throughout Gurozuka and almost pulls the whole movie down with it. Fortunately, there are enough moments of creepiness and even genuine frights to keep things going. 7 young female film students go to an abandoned house in the woods to investigate and recreate what happened there 7 years previously. It's a shame that you essentially give up on the logic of the story and any attachment to the characters, but a solid atmosphere, good sound cues and those damn Noi masks (especially when they're bloody) managed to keep me, if not involved, at least curious what would happen.
Saturday, 11 October 2014
I'm behind in my viewing, so I'm feeling a bit under the gun...After this batch it'll be time to pick up the pace again.
Dr. Terror's House Of Horror (Freddie Francis - 1965) - I'm a big fan of the old Amicus horror anthology films - titles like The House That Dripped Blood, Tales From The Crypt, Torture Garden and Asylum would give you 4-5 short horror stories with a variety of actors (as well as a bonus wrap-around framing device) and bring forth a great 90 minutes of entertainment. The tales weren't really overly gory or jump-out-of-your-seat scary, but they excelled in bringing horrific ideas into 15-20 minute long stories with dashes of black comedy. Dr. Terror's grab bag was the only remaining one of the Amicus omnibus films that had eluded me, so I finally caught up with it and it didn't disappoint. With Peter Cushing dolling out the fates to 5 men he meets on a train (via tarot card readings) and Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland amongst the leads of the individual scenarios, the film breezes by at a fast pace and introduces you to plants with their own brains, voodoo jazz, an artist's disembodied hand, and a couple of different spins on vampires and werewolves. Great stuff.
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis - 2001) - Art horror that builds to excruciating levels of unease and takes carnal desire to extreme lengths. Claire Denis' look at this (blood)lust is most famous for its 2 graphic sexual encounters, but the entire film reeks and drips of our natural urges. Vincent Gallo creepily plays (I suppose 'creepily' is somewhat redundant) an American who has just married a young French girl but is also battling an odd disease. In his mind, his only hope is a French scientist who seems to have dropped off the radar and is attempting to deal with his own individual patient. She has already devoured several sexual mates and is still hungry...With very little dialogue, Denis builds up a frightening scenario of the impossibility of dampening our baser and more dangerous natural instincts.
Night Of The Eagle (Sydney Hayers - 1962) - I was actually looking for Michael Armstrong's 1970 film Burn, Witch, Burn (otherwise known as Mark Of The Devil) when I stumbled across this spiffy little chiller from the early 60s (sometimes also known as Burn, Witch, Burn). Shot in lovely black and white, it sits comfortably right alongside many of the Hammer psychological thrillers ("mini-Hitchcocks" as Hammer called them) made in that same decade - films that were less gothic horror and more about modern tales of evil lurking just beyond the corner. Titles like Scream Of Fear, Paranoiac and Nightmare provide small surprises, twist endings and a wonderful sense of fun and melodrama. Night Of The Eagle hits most of these high points as we follow a university professor who seems to be loved by all and his wife who knows the secret reason why. She's been using voodoo protection all this time, but when she is forced to stop, something will have to give: either his luck or her sanity. Possibly both.
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair - 1942) - OK, so I'm allowed to stretch the boundaries of horror a bit...Or, in the case of this trifle of a movie, a lot. The Criterion Collection released this last year during October, so it sounded like it might be a fun little ditty to toss into the cesspool this month. I expected there not to be many frights in this comedy starring Veronica Lake and Frederic March, but I didn't expect there would also be a dearth of laughs. With the star power involved and the wonderful poetic French director at the helm, I couldn't help but hope for something charming and memorable. It's well-loved by some, but I frankly found it incredibly disappointing - even for a throwaway comedy. Lake has that certain something about her, but she doesn't seem to feel comfortable in the role and overdoes just about everything (in particular the voiceovers that she and her warlock father do while they are in the form of smoke). There's little genuine here - Frederic March feels miscast, the line readings feel rushed (except for Susan Hayward who does well in a small part) and the story is forced. Lake's witch seeks revenge on March who happens to be a descendant of the man who killed her years ago, but things shift and love conquers all. Minus a few decent gags during a wedding scene, there is little impetus to keep things rolling.