Monday, April 28, 2014

La Vie En Iron Rose

Jean Rollin is one of those well-known names to genre fans who go one level deeper than your (slightly) more genre household names like Argento or Jorodorowsky. Somehow, I've compromised my cinema card by never having seen a single one of his many films. 

Naturally, I decided to amend that by starting with what, by all accounts, is the least Rollin joint out there.

Quick Plot: A pretty young woman without a name wanders through rural France, eventually settling down to witness a provincial wedding. There she meets a fellow party guest who is instantly taken with her. They agree to go on a bike ride the next day, as all French first dates go. After flirtatiously roaming around an old train station, they park their wheels outside a sprawling cemetery, aka, the perfect picnic spot.

I say that without irony: this cemetery is gorgeous. Covered in wrought iron fencing and ancient tombstones artistically sprouting moss, the setting is true painting onscreen and cinematographer Jean-Jaques Renon's camera absorbs it in full. After some dilly dallying around the graveyard with coy talks about death and souls, the young lovers sneak into a crypt to consummate their new relationship. When they come up for air, the sun has set, leaving only some haunting moonlight to help them navigate what now seems to be an inescapable purgatory. 

Rollin made his name on vampires and full fleshed eroticism, neither of which are explicitly present in The Iron Rose. That is not to say, however, that The Iron Rose is fully lacking either. 

As ‘the girl,’ Francoise Pascal has one of those deceptively ethereal presences that ups the ante once The Iron Rose hits its turning point (although ‘turning point’ is an odd phrase to use in a surreal film). Dressed in a sunny yellow schoolgirl outfit, Pascal plays the part of the typically reluctant date freaked out by cemeteries, only to gradually transform into a death-courting dancer of seduction. While The Iron Rose is fairly chaste (especially compared to Rollin’s usual output), the chemistry between the leads lends the film an ominous sensuality that seems to be just waiting to turn into something truly dangerous.

Maybe I’m just saying that because this film includes a clown in a cemetery.

The Iron Rose is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. While it drops hints about its more surreal leaning early on, the fairly straightforward narrative is masterful in lulling us into a story we can expect and understand.  The transition into something unknown is handled incredibly well, as Rollin does such a powerful job in using the location to suggest something amiss. He’s greatly aided by Pascal and her slow descent into...well, SOMETHING.

I won’t say that I fully understood The Iron Rose or truly got what Rollin was going for, but it made for a fascinating and one-of-a-kind watch. This is the kind of film I could see myself revisiting some time down the line and getting something completely different from it on second viewing. It’s certainly worth the try.

High Points
Goodness is this a pretty place to set a subtly surreal love story/horror movie/philosophical surreal game or whatever it is that I just watched

...especially when you factor in Pierre Raph’s masterfully haunting score 

Low Points
While it feels right to not quite understand the female's constant change of spirits, her partner seems to be posed as the straight man. You would then think that his story would serve as the sort of audience surrogate, but the character's turns never seems to register. It's just a choice that I don't quite understand.

Lessons Learned
Bodies stop decomposing if it's not damp

A sudden turn-on to the bones of young children is generally not a good portent for your relationship

It's obvious, but how can we ignore it: don't, I repeat don't, have sex in a graveyard. If Bloody Birthday couldn't teach you that, maybe this can

I don’t know that The Iron Rose was the best place to begin my Jean Rollin education as it doesn’t necessarily represent his more well-known trademarks, but I found the film truly fascinating on its own. Sure, it’s slow-moving and nonsensical, but that is clearly part of its point. The film is currently on Netflix Instant along with quite a few other Rollin titles. I’m excited to see more.

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.