Monday, April 21, 2014

It's a Family Tradition

The Internet was not happy when it was announced that Jim Mickle, who made his name (along with co-writer/muse Nick Damici) on original low-budget genre films Mulberry Street and Stake Land, would take the perceived easy horror route in remaking a small foreign hit. 

The Internet is rarely happy.

Mulberry Street and Stake Land demonstrated true talent and innovation from Mickle. Both were made cheaply but managed to feel much bigger (in Stake Land's case, epic) and more importantly, both films showed that Mickle didn't just understand how to craft a good horror movie; he had a fresh outlook in re-envisioning age-old monsters with new eyes. The films were original in more ways than just not being based on preexisting material. From his penchant for using diverse actors of every age to his heavy endings, Mickle was bringing it.

Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 We Are What We Are made festival waves for its unique story and style. It seemed an odd choice for Mickle to remake it, but something in the material seemed to call him. Let’s see what it was.

Quick Plot: Meet the Parkers, a sad little family moping around rainy Delaware with some secret traditions placed firmly in their heritage. When mom dies suddenly, eldest daughter Iris is charged with continuing the Parker way for her quietly intimidating father, thoughtful 14-year-old sister Rose, and adorable little brother.

Revealing the family tradition is something of a spoiler, though unfortunately, it's the kind of spoiler that everyone who sees a trailer or reads a 10-word blurb about the film will know. So let's ask Gandalf for his official sanction:

And move onto what you probably know this movie is about anyway.

Little known fact about eating human flesh: it can lead to a Parkinson's-like condition detectable in autopsies. Doc Barrow (the fine Michael Parks) picks up on the fact when examining Emma Parker. That plus the discovery of a human bone leads the good doctor to do what the local cops are apparently incapable of: solving a whole lot of missing persons reports that all lead back to the Parkers.

Like their Spanish counterparts, the Parkers have an odd family tradition. Way back in 1781, their great great (and let's just guess one more great) grandparents were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive brutal colonial winters. Two hundred plus years later, the Parkers now host an annual 'Lambs Day,' wherein the matriarch carves up a homo sapien for a hearty stew dinner. Now that Iris is the eldest female, it's up to the next generation to follow or challenge the holiday requirements. 

We Are What We Are is a carefully paced film. To some, this probably means 'slow and boring,' and for me, it almost was until it wasn't. The big C doesn't come out until far into the film, something that's a bit of a trick when it's obvious to anyone who's read a single line about the movie. But We Are What We Are isn't ACTUALLY about people eating people, or the game that goes along with catching your two-legged dinner. 

The Parkers aren't happy, particularly young Iris and Rose. They've grown up knowing their family's secret isn't normal but lacking the will to fight it. It's a great little subject to examine in horror movie format: what does it take to challenge mindless tradition, particularly when it's inherited by family ties? We Are What We Are asks these questions, albeit in a quiet, suggested way. Coming from the same team that brought rat zombie vampire people to Little Italy, it’s quite impressive to see how the Mickle/Damici pair can handle such different styles of genre storytelling, even if it's done in a, you know, kind of slow way.

High Points
It's inevitable that I'll approve of the characters and performances in a Mickle/Damici script. Both Stake Land and Mulberry Street proved that this team cares about the people they put in their movies, and We Are What We Are is no different on that front. 

Low Points
It was already a bummer to see Mickle's cohort Damici only taking a supporting role, but when supporting role is further reduced to 'town sheriff who seems less capable than the mentally handicapped police officers in The Human Centipede,' it's even more grumble worthy

Lessons Learned
The night of her mom's funeral is generally not the best time to ask a girl out for a casual date

Nothing flows upstream

Everything might taste like chicken, but certain meat sure does look like unfortunate ladies with car trouble

My disappointment with We Are What We Are comes mostly from my expectations of the filmmaking team. I though Stake Land demonstrated such a monstrous level of skill and instinct that I just want so much for their films to continuously improve. We Are What We Are is a very good little genre film, one that takes its time and subtly examines what tradition means and how problematic it can be to blindly follow the religious or social requirements you were born into without questioning their place. It's just not the film I wanted from the guys who managed to give us NYC on the brink of collapse on a tiny budget or an apocalyptic wasteland with heart with a slightly less tiny budget. Now streaming on Instant Watch, this is a recommend, and a film that might sit better with me the next time around. In the meantime, I’ll just accept that I am what I am.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Some Burning Sensations Are Not Meant To Be Ignored

STDs: one of the most horrifying dangers in the real world that can happen to anybody.

STDs in horror movies: one of the most horrifying dangers of the real world that really should be explored further.

Quick Plot: Twentysomething Sam isn’t in the best life place. Her sexy Australian girlfriend Nikki has become distant, her conservative mother is nagging, a past drug problem is cautiously haunting her, and a letter of acceptance for a competitive flower growing contest (go with it) hasn’t arrived in the mail. Such stress rends her easy prey to a lurking party crasher who passes her a mysterious red solo cup before committing date rape in the backseat of his car.

Despite her green thumb, nothing is coming up roses for poor Sam.

Things for from bad to really, really, super really did I say REALLY? terrible once Sam discovers signs of an infection. What starts as a rash and untimely vaginal bleeding quickly escalates into loose teeth, bloodshot eyeballs, ringing ears, and...well, let’s just say that actress Najarra Townsend is a very pretty young woman. 

Samantha three days into an unnamed sexually transmitted disease is...

Absolutely horrifying.

Written and directed by Eric England, Contracted is a short and incredibly focused spin on body horror. As Sam, Townsend occupies virtually every frame of the film and she equips herself quite well by not playing the part as a wounded ingenue. Samantha is confused, having recently identified herself as a lesbian only to find her greatest love slipping away. Avoiding any flashbacks or straight exposition, it’s up to the audience to piece her life together and England’s rather subtle choices make that (for the most part) quite easy and natural. We don’t need to hear about a drug addiction when a few trail marks tell us the same, just as Nkki's boredom with Sam is obvious from her performance, not dialog. Such developments demonstrate England to be quite a promising young filmmaker in being able to give us content without the obvious.

Also, yuck. 

Viral horror is rife with potential when it comes to genre cinema. In the case of Contracted, the film is so carefully grounded in the specifics of Samantha’s life that every fingernail falloff is felt. Yes, Samantha makes some of the dumbest decisions ever  found in film, but once we see where her relationship with Nikki has gone, they make sense. Despite her youth, Sam sees Nikki as the only worthwhile aspect of her life and to actively seek help for her infection would reveal that she was, in her mind, unfaithful. 

Contracted never acknowledges the fact that Sam was raped, but perhaps that’s part of its point. Sam is so ashamed of what happened to her while binge drinking that she convinces herself to ignore what is obviously a serious, serious issue.

See what I mean?

Running less than 80 minutes in length, Contracted tells a quick, simple story with a neat amount of underlying subtext. England makes the most of a small budget by focusing his energy so carefully on one character. Perhaps the film could have pushed harder, but as a first effort from England, it’s a good start.

High Points
Best known to most of us as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Stretch, Caroline Williams puts in a wonderful supporting performance as Sam’s judgmental (but deep down, rather loving) mom. It’s a wonderful coup for horror fans to see her here, but the fact that she handles the role with such personality makes it a win all around

Low Points
There’s something a little disappointing about the ending of Contracted in that (ambiguous spoiler), it ultimately closes on such a simple ‘horror movie’ note

Lessons Learned
Shots solve everything!

No, they actually don’t

Condoms. Really, truly, seriously, absolutely: condoms

Look! It’s-
Greendale College’s Dungeons & Dragons champion himself, Fat Neil! 

Now streaming on Netflix, Contracted is a fresh little film that makes for a solid, and very yucky watch. It will be exciting to see what else Eric England can do in the future with more resources in his arsenal. In the meantime, we'll just enjoy (and shudder at) this one.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Go Tell It On a Mountain

Renny Harlin will probably never win an Oscar, but the man's ability to craft true enjoyability onscreen is rivaled only by his ability to grow rock star-like golden locks. Between Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the often controversial (in horror nerd circles, that is) Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Harlin is the kind of name that makes me think, 'eh, it's not going to be Shakespeare but I'll probably have a darn good time.'

Following in the footsteps of Barry Levinson's The Bay, Harlin headed up to the hills for Devil's Pass. Twelve production studio logos later, we watch:

Quick Plot: In 1959, a team of nine Russian hikers known as the Dyatlov Party headed up a mountain in the Ural chain only to be found dead of mysterious circumstances. Fifty years later, a team of Oregon college students decide to channel their inner Blair Witch Project to document their own investigation.

Surprise! They discover a happy polar utopia filled with friendly polar bears and displaced penguins. Everyone drinks hot chocolate and quotes A Muppet Family Christmas in between building snowmen and having ugly sweater contests.

Or, I don't know, their compasses freak out, avalanches attack, Russian soldiers turn mean, and Lost-like hatches reveal very bad, very CGI things.

Channeling some of his arctic Cliffhanger blood, director Renny Harlin is an odd choice to helm a found footage film, something that probably explains the screenwriter being Vikram West, a reality TV behind-the-scenes veteran. Harlin is a man who generally works with a heftier budget than your Grave Encounters and Skew crews can ever sell enough internal organs to earn. Found footage, of course, has primarily become the indie horror du jour because it doesn’t require Michael Bay money.  What it does require, however, can be just as tricky.

Found footage needs to justify its status as being found footage, which Devil’s Pass handles well. The film opens with international newsreels telling us the typical basics about a well-equipped team of young Americans mysteriously vanishing in the mountains, cutting to the early ‘we’re making a movie!’ interviews that set up their trip. It’s quickly revealed that the crew’s camera equipment was discovered and leaked online by hackers. Like many of its peers, Devil’s Pass can easily explain why the cameras were always running because hey, when you’re stranded in the middle of the Ural mountains, you need some kind of light source.

The other requirement of found footage involves casting. Here’s the thing about these kinds of films: they’re supposed to be as natural as can be. So here’s the thing about casting non-American actors to play Americans: they ain’t gonna be that natural. Poor British lead Holly Goss comes across as sounding like she has a speech impediment when trying to pronounce certain words. It’s problematic.

Looking--or listening--past that, Devil’s Pass somehow manages to work, and not work, work, and not. The arctic setting holds up its promise, while the threat of everything from a Russian government coverup to deadly radiation keeps things interesting. Ultimately, Devil’s Pass doesn’t quite stick its landing, but there are enough ups and downs to make the journey worth a hike.

High Points
I can’t fault any modern horror movie that finds a way to combine avalanches, time travel, yetis, monster people, and an arctic setting

Low Points
It just would have been nicer if the monster people part of the above statement didn’t feel like such obvious computerized additions to an otherwise real-feeling film

Lessons Learned
When traveling with a group of friends on a mysterious mission, resist the urge to take an adorable group photo just before takeout unless you want it to be prime motivation for an evil force to focus upon how happy you are before inevitable doom

Snow tigers are extinct

-17 degrees isn't THAT cold, so long as you're having sex in a tent


There's a lot of good and a lot of bad in Devil's Pass, something I come to expect from a Renny Harlin joint. Compared to many a found footage horror film, this one is certainly watchable and occasionally, quite enjoyable. There’s ultimately a lot of letdown in the overall execution, but for a good 90 minutes or so, Devil’s Pass is fun. Not Deep Blue Sea fun, but really, what is?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

All I Want For Helena Is a Mouthful of Teeth

Evil children, tooth fairies, and Netflix Instant?


Quick Plot: Sophia is a British historian raising her daughter Helena alone in Italy after her carefree husband took off to Cancun. After a car accident robs Helena of a proper first visit from the tooth fairy, the girl becomes obsessed with collecting molars from her classmates to appease the mysterious spirit she claims to be living inside the antique wardrobe recently found in their historically fertile apartment.

Look, when I was a kid, my pals and I traded snap bracelets. The next generation, pogs, later, SillyBandz and so forth. Apparently, teeth gathering just crosses a line.

Soon Sophia is dragging Helena to a psychiatrist who is alarmed by her stories and violent drawings, especially since they seem to demonstrate that Helena has dark knowledge of a terrible crime that took place in their rented home fifty years prior.

The Haunting of Helena has one of those eye-catching covers that Netflix Instant knows how to flash. This is also a Bloody Disgusting release, and while their record is splotchy, I always hold out hope that they'll sponsor another gem like YellowBrickRoad.

In the case of The Haunting of Helena, we're much closer in line to Exit Humanity.

Like that Civil War-set zombie tale, The Haunting of Helena is a solidly made horror film. And like that Civil war-set zombie tale, it's also dreadfully paced and far less involving than it could be.

Here you have a film that opens with creepy video footage and black and white photos detailing a little known period of Italian history wherein Benito Mussolini sent poor citizens to a malaria-ridden no man's land to cultivate a new agricultural resource. That's different, and promising as some form of backdrop for a haunted child film. The problem is that The Haunting of Helena has no real idea how to connect the two. 

Sure, we get plenty of beautiful cinematography that gives us refreshingly new views of Italian architecture, but there are only so many linking shots of a creepy cemetery statue that can keep a script involving. Somewhere along the film's 90 minute running time, we get side-tracked with newspaper articles about long-past wolf attacks on local children and the recurring horror of spousal jealousy taken too far. Also, mosquitoes. Because those connect to malaria and...wolf attacks?

You can see my frustration. Lead actress Harriet MacMasters-Green is appealing enough, but she can only do so much with a 'leave my daughter alone!' character who throws in her own secret halfway through the film, only to have that ultimately mean nothing. Characters seem to enter the film at opportune moments solely to be put in danger one scene later. The timing moves from days to months to days to years, without anything really changing (a woman as stylish as Sophia would probably at least experiment with bangs or hair dye over the course of 18 months). It's like directors Christian Bisceglia and Ascanio Malgarini collected a bunch of tropes from modern ghost films (grayish color palette, old timey flashbacks, worried single mother, big-eyed child), and dropped them in a saucepan heating up Prego. The end result isn't terrible, but it's clearly so far below what it could have been. 

High Points
There's a nice twist tossed in towards the end, but the problem is, it's so much more interesting than the hour that came before it that it ultimately just made me angry to be watching the wrong movie

Low Points

Lessons Learned
In Italy, asylums for the mentally ill encourage mingling of all ages from child to disturbed adult

Just because your daughter is going crazy and there's a toothless ghost after you is no reason at all not to let your hair lose its luster

Always listen to your crazy elderly neighbors. Because if you can't trust your crazy elderly neighbors to deliver important exposition, who can you trust?

The Haunting of Helena is certainly stronger than many a low budget horror film floating on Instant Watch, but I found it incredibly disappointing. Like the recent Mama, it feels derivative of too many subgenres without fully understanding just what makes them work. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

When You Wish Upon a Killer's Moon

Let’s just get this out of the way:

This film is poorly punctuated. 

Killer’s Moon implies the moon belongs to one killer. 

This film has four.

Perhaps I’m just quick to the angry apostrophe following a recent typo in the special edition of The Dark Knight Returns

Anyway, let’s try to put this terrible experience behind us and get on with the show.

Quick Plot: An all-girls choir bus experiences some mechanical trouble in the middle of the British countryside, where a pair of handsome (I assume, by 1970s British/expat American standards) twentysomethings are camping, a pleasant woman is prepping her out-of-the-way hotel, and a grumpy gamekeeper is gamekeeping.

Also, there are four violent lunatics on the loose who escaped the clutches of their psychiatrist and his experimental treatment that involved encouraging them to act out their basest instincts by convincing them they were living in a dream world with no consequences.

Naturally, the combination of insane men without societal constraints and the nubile flesh of teenage girls does not a merry evening make.

Let me just say it: I absolutely adored this movie.

Mind you, I don't normally like to jump into my judgment so soon in a review, especially for a film as messy (maybe intentionally?) as Killers' Moon (yeah, I'm repunctuating the title like the maverick I am). 

But see, I simply did not want to stop watching the kind of movie that includes such gems of dialogue as such:

 "Look, you were only raped, as long as you don't tell anyone about it you'll be alright. You pretend it never happened, I pretend I never saw it and if we ever get out of this alive, well, maybe we'll both live to be wives and mothers."

The biggest question I had with Killers' Moon regards said script, credited to director Alan Birkinshaw but rumored to come from the pen of his sister, famed feminist novelist Fay Weldon. Had I not known anything about Ms. Weldon, I probably would have assumed lines like the above to be tongue-in-cheek. This is the same film, mind you, that sees our pair of heroes discuss how they are outnumbered and outarmed only to conclude that the best solution to fight their enemies would be to split up.

Always a wise plan, gents. Always wise.

However, some brief Wikipedia'ing seems to point that Fay Weldon considers rape, how do you say, overrated as a crime. Knowing that makes Killers' Moon an even odder watch, as the film is filled with young women being violently attacked in a way that might be tasteless, might be offensive, or just might be what you would expect (and maybe want?) from a '70s pre-slasher exploitation genre film.

While Killers' Moon is rife with messiness as a low budget movie, it also has some pretty neat subtext in its villains. From their bowler hats and white-on-white attire to the way they respectfully speak to each other as Mr., our killers are clearly inspired by A Clockwork Orange. That they're acting out their impulses simply because they believe they're living in a fantasy world is rather fascinating. They're confused when their actions don't cause the desired effects they'd have in REM, but you almost can't blame them for committing these crimes because why should they not believe it's all part of their therapy? As the mayhem intensifies, some start to realize what's really going on, and their reactions are not at all what you'd expect.

If that weren't enough, we also have a heroic three-legged dog played by a local canine hero, barbershop quartet levels of harmony coming from the mouths of mass murderers, and a rather brilliant case of drag being applied where you least expect it.

Yes, I did indeed love this movie.

High Points
Though it sometimes calls a little too much attention to itself, John Shakespeare and Derek Warne's score is generally pretty darn awesome, filled with Repulsion-like jazz riffs and playful little nods to Three Blind Mice and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Low Points
It's a shame that none of the girls really register as fully fledged characters. Other than 'somewhat helpful girl,' 'somewhat whiny girl,' 'somewhat raped girl,' and 'somewhat flirty girl who thinks it's silly to be sad about being somewhat raped girl,' none really stick out in a way worth remembering

I suppose it bears mentioning that in the real world, nighttime and daytime don't necessarily change back and forth over the course of an evening

Lessons Learned
The white slavery industry has been ruined by too many enthusiastic amateurs

Never call a British headmistress a nature lover

If it’s not ramblers, it’s bramblers

The Winning Line
Killers' Moon is bursting with them, but I think my heart belongs to this one:

"I understand you have a problem."

This is the final line of Killers' Moon, and is spoken by a police officer in the calmest manner possible. Substitute "I understand you have a question about parking regulations" and you might have a better idea of how this is delivered. 

The problem, you see, is that these characters have been terrorized all night by raping murderers. Nothing to raise anyone's voice about, of course. 


I’m not sure how I had never heard of Killer(s)’ Moon before stumbling upon it on Netflix Instant Watch. This is the kind of low budget, completely insane little gem that brings true joy into the lives of genre film fans. Hop to it with your very own three-legged Doberman.