Wednesday, 31 October 2012

October Horror 2012 - Chapter #7

This guy can't believe October is over, but I still have one more chapter left in my month's viewing to follow...

Pet Sematary (1989 - Mary Lambert) - A good half of this adaptation of yet another Stephen King novel is essentially foreshadowing. You know what's coming, you know how it's going to happen and you know what the result is going to be, and yet it takes its time getting there...That's mostly OK as you get a heaping helping of Fred Gwynne during the setup and those bits alerting you to what is to come are handled rather decently. After a new family moves into a house on a well-traveled road (with a single tank truck apparently driving by about 20 times a day), they discover a cemetery at the end of a path behind their house. With help from their kindly neighbour (Gwynne), they learn it's a cemetery for pets and it dates back hundreds of years. When the family cat gets munged on the road, he lets the father in on a special secret - a bit further afield from that cemetery is another one that provides some interesting side effects to those buried there. It has its goofy bits and Denise Crosby threatens to shut the whole damn thing down on her own, but it finds its rhythms here and there and manages to hold you until the eventual denouement which spirals nicely out of control.

Brainscan (1994 - John Flynn) - You really have to love those older films that played with the early home computers - whether they got the technology right or not, it's always great to see how little we expected the huge revolution that was just around the corner. Brainscan gets a bit of it, though, by centering the story around a interactive, virtual reality horror video game that sucks in shy teenager Michael (played by Edward Furlong). After being unimpressed with the sales pitch, he gives the game a whirl and suddenly finds himself tasked with killing some unknown sleeping man in his bedroom. Thinking it's all a game, he completes the task and can't wait to play the second part since it all felt so real. And then he sees a news story depicting the murder he just committed in the game. Is it real or was it just a game? He balks at playing again, but the virtual host of the game morphs out of his TV into his room and forces him to play several more rounds with more deaths piling up each time. It's a neat premise, but any dread or even general horror at the concept is diminished by the cartoon character Trickster (egads, what a terrible name). It does keep you in suspense as to how it will all play out and stays at a reasonable entertainment level (and provides Frank Langella as a cop on the case - so you've at least got that), but still very much a lesser effort.

Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror (1981 - Andrea Bianchi) - Hoo boy...This film is seriously poorly done on so many levels that I lost count. The dubbing, the acting (of both the actors on screen and the voice over work), the random plot, the lack of tension, etc. But, and here's the thing, it still pretty much keeps you watching for the entirety of its 85 minutes. Many would consider it "so bad it's good", but I would just classify it as fun. Three overly sexed couples arrive at a mansion for a weekend (there was probably a reason for it, but who cares) along with the young son of one of the women. Well, when I say young...He acts and is treated like he's 10 years old, but the guy looks about 45 (in reality, he was a 26 year old midget - that's him at the top of the post). Anyway, they just happen to arrive after some amateur archaeologist has awoken a slew of zombified mummies from a cave (which dominoes somehow into random buried bodies also rising from their graves). The zombies slowly corner the guests into their house and narrow the field one by one (including the two servants - who still serve them drinks after the zombies have started attacking). The gore is plentiful and gooey - I swear these zombie dudes are chowing down on raw chicken with ketchup - and the zombies are quite well realized (and damn gross with their green bile and maggots spewing forth from every orifice). It's ridiculous, but I dare you not to enjoy it. Creepiest moment of the whole film: forget the zombies, it's when Michael (the young boy) cuddles up to his mother and wants to not only suckle at her breasts, but also tries to put his hand between her legs...OK, so it ain't all gold, but damn if that wasn't a bit unsettling.

The Uninvited (2009 - Charles Guard, Thomas Guard) - Essentially a remake of the well-loved Korean Tale Of Two Sisters - and now that you know that, there isn't much reason to see it. Well, it's not actually that bad and has solid performances and some well shot scenes, but with the twist out of the picture much of the film becomes rather irrelevant. After spending almost a year in a mental hospital after the death of her mother in a freak accident, Anna moves back home to find her father has now officially shacked up with her mother's caregiver. Her Dad remains rather oblivious to everything, so that leaves her sister Alex as her only true confidante. Anna (played by Emily Browning) isn't exactly a fan of Dad's new girlfriend (played in nice evil-godmother fashion by Elizabeth Banks) and starts to think that maybe her Mom's death wasn't an accident. There's not as much tense atmosphere as there really should be given the ghosts that Anna keeps seeing and the way the plot spools out, but it's decently constructed nonetheless. if you haven't seen its Korean antecedent, then it may be worth a watch. If you have, it really won't make much difference to your life either way if you see it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Blind Spot #10 - "The Mummy" & "The Wolf Man"

One of the keys to coming to older horror movies (particularly those of the 30s and 40s) is not to go in to them expecting to be "scared". I don't mean this as a way of belittling those movies - in particular my two blind spots this month The Mummy and The Wolf Man - but simply to state that if you are coming to them this late, you've likely had experience with other more intense movies with a different purpose in mind. Many of the more recent movies are designed to ramp up your adrenalin and make you feel unease. The older ones typically want nothing more than to entertain...Personally, I like both types.

That's also not to say that the older movies can't bring some creepiness to bear since they certainly can. It's a different and less unrelenting type, though, but it can still linger for awhile...Take for instance 1932's The Mummy - it's hard to get a creepier still than the great one of Boris Karloff that leads off this post. The lighting emphasizes those sunken eyes and the close-up gives all manner of detail to the ridges and deep valleys of his (its?) craggy face. The first sight of this face from this vantage point is indeed quite disconcerting. It also helps you put two and two together to realize that this man (named Ardath Bay) is actually the reincarnation of Im-Ho-Tep. A decade earlier, Im-Ho-Tep's mummified remains had been awakened by British archaeologists and now that a new British team is on site, Ardath is helping them to uncover another tomb - this time the one belonging to his ill-fated lover Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Im-Ho-Tep was sentenced to die after trying to bring his love back to life, but several thousand years later he was brought back by a reading from The Scroll Of Thoth. The new team of archaeologists is actually led by the son of the leader of the first team, a man who said he would never return due to what happened (the man who read the scroll who was part of his team went insane after witnessing the mummy come to life and shuffle out into the desert). By using the most recent team, Ardath (ie. Im-Ho-Tep) plans to find his princess and then reanimate her using the body of another woman - in this case the pretty Helen Grosvenor - who just happens to look very much like her. Of course, the expedition's leader (Frank Whemple) has just fallen for Helen too...

Oddly - at least given the expectations I had coming in - there is not a single scene of a mummy shuffling forward with his arms outstretched. Not one! We see his eyes open, a wrapped hand move into shot and a trailing unraveling bandage dragged off screen as the mummy leaves. This is fine, of course, since the movie doesn't need those shots, but it was still surprising. The Wolfman similarly doesn't overdo too many shots of its titular character - though we do get a wolf attack early on and then the actual wolfman towards the end. That wolfman (and I'm not really giving anything away as it is pretty obvious what the throughline of the story is) is Larry Talbot, recently returned from the United States after his brother's death in order to take over as the heir of his father's estate (located in Wales). Things start out well enough, but as he escorts a pretty shopgirl and her friend one night, he gets bitten by a wolf. Turns out it was one of the gypsies who set up camp (the other stalworth of Universal monster pictures - Bela Lugosi) and his mother warns Larry that he too will turn once the moon goes full again. Larry (played by the lumbering and not overly smooth Lon Chaney Jr.) tries to tell his father, but it's not the easiest thing to explain to someone.

The Wolf Man is less effective at bringing any of the horror elements to the screen - I would have to say that Chaney is largely responsible as he just doesn't fit into any of the character traits or emotions presented him - but it is still immensely entertaining. Occasionally it's for its goofy charm or slightly over the top screams, but for the most part it's because it keeps its story moving and has a game cast. I guess I shouldn't drop all the blame at Chaney's feet as he isn't completely awful, but I can't help wonder how much better the film would have been with another actor in that role. His initial meeting with the shopgirl (after somewhat creepily spying on her via his father's telescope) is awkward at best, but after he has been bitten and the paranoia and acceptance seeps in, he carries the weight of it better. Along with Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya (I love saying her name) and Claude Rains have supporting roles and add some heft to the proceedings as we get closer to Larry's first transformation to werewolf. It's not exactly American Werewolf In London, but anyone who compares it to that is just being silly. For its time, the double exposed frames showing the stages of fur growing are reasonably effective. Larry doesn't go full wolf - he still walks upright - but he can certainly bare his teeth and he's not afraid to chow down. And I'm damn jealous of that head of hair he sprouts...

Ardath Bay's "powers" are less obvious, but even more effective as he can remotely control people and even cause their deaths. Handy when people start raising questions about you and show signs of potentially ruining your plans. Helen falls into several trances as Ardath tries to get her back to the tomb, but Frank is doing his best to keep a watch on her. If the film doesn't fly through its story as quick as The Wolf Man does, it isn't a problem - the slower pace adds a bit more dread into the atmosphere and lets you sit with the idea of how to handle an entity like Ardath Bay. It has its goofy moments too though as Frank pretty much proclaims his undying love to Helen within about 5 seconds of meeting her. I know it was a "different time" back then, but that's just a wee bit of a short cut in the story department. There's also the borderline cheesy flashbacks to two thousand years ago complete with Karloff in ancient Egyptian clothing, but it's all forgiven due to the constant fun vibe. The same can also be said of The Wolf Man as you watch Larry's one psychedelic dreamlike moment.

In the end, I'd probably say that I enjoyed The Wolf Man a bit more than The Mummy, but the latter is the better horror film because of some of the images and feelings it leaves with you. At just a few ticks over 70 minutes for each of them, it's hard to find better value for your Halloween viewing than both of these deserved classics.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Toronto After Dark 2012 - "My Amityville Horror"

I was initially very skeptical when I heard that the documentary My Amityville Horror was to look back at the real life events that inspired the blockbuster 1979 film The Amityville Horror. How do you document word of mouth happenings and alleged paranormal events from 35 years ago? Would there be a litany of "experts" in these fields giving their "professional" opinions? I'll admit that I was worried it would be a frustrating experience and that the reason it was playing at After Dark was that it would likely have re-creations of some of these occurrences that were supposed to be ghostly in nature. The only way I thought the film could really touch on anything remotely interesting would be if it focused on the effect it all had on some of the people involved. Fortunately, that's closer to what the film gave us. In fact, it was quite an interesting portrait of one very broken man.

Though I love horror films about the paranormal (particularly ghost stories), I have little time for claims of actual paranormal activity in real life. Not a single bit of credible scientific evidence has EVER been found regarding any of these things, so the blatherings of psychics, ghost hunters and others who dabble in these fields are tiresome to me. It's not that I will outright state that these things could not possibly exist (how can I prove that they can't?), but I find absolutely no reason to believe that they do. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, so I always wish more people realized that Occam's Razor can be your friend. Of course, I might tread lightly if that topic came up around Daniel Lutz...Now in his mid-40s, bald, stocky and with piercing eyes, Daniel was the eldest child of the Lutz family who lived in the Amityville house and claims to have experienced many of the strange happenings within it. And he's very adamant about it.

The "true" story behind Amityville is indeed frustrating to see in the documentary as we hear several tales of spirits and voices permeating the house from not only Daniel, but a few other folks who were there doing their own investigating. We meet some of these same people in the present day as well and it's an interesting cast - in particular the demonologist Lorraine Warren. Though she's quite sweet and appears genuinely concerned about Daniel (I can't imagine her being a fraud), she's also got numerous ideas about that house (and a variety of other things) that might make you think twice about her sanity. The meeting at her current abode is also one of the stranger moments in the film - due both to the incredible array of items she has displayed on her shelves and the reactions of Daniel. Is he playing things up for the camera? Does he think she's off her nut? Or does he find everything she's saying incredibly revelatory? It feels like all three sometimes. We also get to see some old talk show footage of George Lutz and his wife as they made their book tour rounds in the 70s and made claims about their terrifying time in that house on Long Island. George was the head of the household after marrying Kathy a few years previous and getting three step-children as a bonus. The film presents him as a rather ruthless step-father, a dabbler in the occult and definitely not a sterling example of humanity. We get many of these details from Daniel himself - the only remaining Lutz who is willing to talk. His mother and step-father have both passed away (mention of the latter's passing brings a smile to Daniel face) and his siblings wanted nothing to do with rehashing the story again. It certainly feels like the film had not initially intended Daniel to be the main subject all along, but whether they couldn't get anything else of interest or they just became somewhat seduced by his strong stern voice and hulking frame doesn't really matter. He's an intimidating package for sure, but still provides some fascinating stories that paint a much more detailed picture of himself and his family then they do of the events.

As we hear about his childhood with his family through several different interviews and learn about the abuse that occurred (both verbal and physical and before they ever got to Amityville), you can see how Daniel already had a rocky road ahead of him. But the spotlight of the media on his family and his step-father's desire to control his house and household led to young Daniel rebelling anywhere he could. This led to an early departure from his family to go it alone (when he was around 15) and, if you are to believe Daniel's expressions and grins as he leaves out details of his young adulthood, a whole mess of trouble. It's also somewhat difficult to believe everything he says about the house - not that he's purposely lying about everything since you really do get the feeling that he firmly believes he experienced strange phenomena in the house, but that some of it feels exaggerated. Whether that's for the camera or for himself is hard to say. In the end, it's hard to say anything about those events - as time goes by they become less and less interesting and whether they happened or not feels almost irrelevant. What is relevant is how it all affected a young boy's life and helped shape the man he became. Daniel probably wouldn't want our sympathy, but he does deserve respect for making it through - even if it wasn't completely unscathed.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Toronto After Dark 2012 - "Citadel"

The easy read of Citadel is of the black and white revenge variety - "bullies will never change, so 'man up' and blow the bastards away". But it's never that easy is it? A single person's view of the world from their perspective just can't quickly be generalized - even if it looks slightly post-apocalyptic. In this case, the troublemakers in question are roving groups of kids dressed in the universal sign of the juvenile delinquent: the hoodie. They all come from one particular concrete slab of an apartment tower in the terribly depressing outskirts of a city in Ireland. It all looks very alien as the steets are essentially deserted, the cops never crack the perimeter and people live in their shells hoping not to be noticed.

Not an ideal place to raise a family...With the birth of their first child imminent, Tommy and Joanne are moving out of the tower, but on the final trip there Joanne is severely beaten and injected with drugs by the hoodie brigade. The baby survives, but Joanne is left in a deep coma. Tommy begins living in a perpetual frightened state becoming agoraphobic and not even really knowing how to bond with his growing child (he rarely even talks to her). In therapy, a doctor tells him that he pretty much personifies fear in the way he walks in a hunched, rigid fashion and how his face is frozen in a scared mask. With help from one of the social workers, he tries to function on a day to day basis, but he becomes more and more convinced that the hooded kids (who look very much like they're feral) are after his daughter. This is pretty much confirmed for him upon meeting a local priest who has a plan in mind.

The priest is accompanied by a young blind boy who counsels Tommy that the hoodies feed off fear and if you don't show it, they won't even see you. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more surreal - the kids look more creature like, the tower looms larger and everything seems to close in on Tommy. It's enough to make you question what you are really seeing and whether it's all part of Tommy's mechanism to deal (or not deal) with his situation. The overwhelming theme of the film is that we need to face our fears and have faith in ourselves, not simply internalize and avoid. Otherwise the walls start closing in. But it's not always that easy and the film makes that pretty clear.

It's also one hell of a scary movie. Whether you're a parent (talk about a worst case scenario) or not, the film keeps you in a constant state of being unnerved due to the surroundings, the extremely well created sound field and the always present sense of impending doom. Tommy's sunken eyes and colour-drained face often fill the frame and force you to put yourself in his position. It's terribly effective and not long before you feel yourself squirming in your seat. Though it conveys the darkness and dreariness of the rundown outskirts of city centres, the film itself is never dull and provides an engaging ebb and flow. Aneurin Barnard is utterly convincing as Tommy. You can't help but feel that this shoot must've been horrific for him - for all I know he had a blast, but his character's state of mind in the film is not one I would wish on many people and had to have been draining to live within for each take. Whether what we see is reality is besides the point by the end of the film. It's real for Tommy and his only way out is to face down his incapacitating fear. Not an easy task.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

October Horror 2012 - Chapter #6

For today's lesson...

The Mummy's Hand (1940 - Christy Cabanne) - A poor cousin to the Universal Monster classic The Mummy, this short cheapie may lack in characters, story and humour (not that it doesn't "try" to be funny), but there's one thing that it has in spades in comparison to its older relative - an actual walking mummy. And a beady hollow-eyed one at that. Not that it makes this film any better than its parentage, but it at least helps its bland beginnings become somewhat more entertaining in the latter part. Less a horror film and more an action/adventure flick, it's a reasonable watch and fairly inoffensive (except the attempts to be funny) as two archaeologists find a clue to the ancient Ananka's hidden tomb. A magician who funds their trip joins them and brings along his beautiful daughter. The four of them must contend with a high priest and his zombie-like mummy who guards the grave. There's little more to the razor thin plot, but at least it goes about its business quickly and probably provided for a bit of time-wasting fun for kids back in the day (and possibly even today if they aren't too jaded).

The Curse Of The Crying Woman (1963 - Rafael Baledon) - The dubbing is horrible and the DVD is a mix of grey and light grey, but this Mexican take on the "evil family curses reaching down the generations" genre is far better than you ever might imagine as director Baledon fills the movie with some memorable images and creepy scenes. Amelia is visiting her aunt by invitation for the first time in many years, but in standard horror movie fashion none of the townspeople want to go anywhere near her aunt's mansion. Turns out they're not so dumb, since auntie has plans for Amelia. Before the stroke of midnight on her birthday, the curse will take affect and she will help reawaken a witch from years of decomposed sleep. Amelia's constantly cigar chomping new husband is also present and relatively useless in helping her even if he is clearly about 20 years older than she is (one can only imagine Amelia has some father complex issues to work out). It's a breezy 74 minutes and despite some blathering about the history of the curse and maddening plot elements, it really does kinda fly by with some well deserved minor scares and, my favourite word in horror, atmosphere.

The Convent (2000 - Mike Mendez) - Combining both the best and the worst of 80s horror, Mendez's The Convent is both highly entertaining and painfully cringe-worthy - sometimes at the same time. With a look inspired by the day-glo 80s and a feel of videotape, its use of lots of practical effects and cheeseball special effects plunge it all into a style that is lively and fun. It easily stands out from those older titles by having decent actors spout the dialogue - in particular the two female leads (the goth girl and her former best-friend-now-hanging-with-the-cool-kids) since they have an ease with their characters and allow the silliness to happen naturally through the circumstances. The group break into an old convent for spray painting fun , but run afoul of some devil worshippers and nun ghosts. Of course there's some backstory as to why the ghosts are there in the first place and that's when Adrienne Barbeau comes in. Clearly having a ball with it, she returns to the scene of an earlier traumatic event and helps mow down a variety of demonic beasts who have begun taking over the bodies of some of the kids. The flipside to all this fun is that some of the humour is grossly overplayed and accompanied by the odd choice of breakbeat techno music (ala The Prodigy) especially during randomly sped-up scenes. Without some of those baffling choices, the film could've been a full-tilt good time. As it is, it's still a surprisingly enjoyable and goofy ride.

It's Alive (1974 - Larry Cohen) - After this and Cohen's other October Horror entry God Told Me To, I may have to delve into the rest of his filmography (Black Caesar, Q and so on). Both films have a knack for creating a tense experience without ever drawing attention to how it's being done. In regards to It's Alive, one of its best weapons is the deformed killer baby (note I said killer baby, not baby killer) that is kept in the shadows and just off screen for much of the movie. The quick glimpses of portions of this mutant being allow you to visualize its entirety, but keeping it absent for most of the time also keeps you on edge about what it might do next and where it'll pop up. There are hints as to why Frank and Lenore's baby is born fully-formed as a bloodthirsty killer (environmental issues, prescribed drugs, etc.), but as horrific as those ideas are, the worst is the thought of being a parent and knowing that you need to destroy your own flesh and blood. No matter how ugly and vicious it may be (and I'm talking about objective ugliness here...). Not the gorefest I expected and I'm quite glad to once again have my expectations shoved to the side. John P. Ryan plays the Dad at vein-popping intensity for the majority of the film and is a delight to watch.