Monday, May 31, 2010

Love Me, Dub Me

Sometimes I forget what a bumbling, albeit enjoyable experience it is to watch a dubbed film. With extremely rare exceptions (I don’t actually know of any but I hate to believe in any absolutes), genre films with overenthusiastic American voiceover artists generally amuse on a campy and awkward level as opposed to ever seamlessly integrating to cause real scares. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror  is a joy, but that doesn’t mean it works.
Tanit Jitnukul's Art of the Devil marks my first foray into Thai horror and while it has a few effective moments of artistry, I’ll preface this review with the admission that any real tension is skimmed down by the dreadfully bland, I assume poorly translated English dubbed track. 
Quick Plot: 
A pretty, light-headed young woman named Boom is quickly romanced by a wealthy married architect who enjoys watching her dance with his pals. You should know that your relationship is in trouble when on the first date, you're asked to remove your top and get jiggy with others but you know...charm goes a long way.

Pregnant and pissed off when her married one-time lover proves less than thrilled and more than slap-happy, Boom takes the logical step of employing Thai voodoo vengeance on his entire family, inspiring an Amityville 2 -like murder-suicide rampage on his household in the hopes of inheriting everything that’s left. 
Life never quite works out the way you expect, and before she can claim a not really rightful place at the head of an oversized dinner table, a previous family emerges complete with an apparently ageless former mistress mother, her eligible bachelor son, mallrat daughter, other son that will prove easy early fodder, and bratty kid brother with the voice of a squeak toy. It doesn’t take long for Boom to work her feminine wiles on a very eager to be engaged bachelor and before you can attempt to read any of the unsubtitled cue cards that are written in Thai regarding the passage of time, people are vomiting up gooey eels and children are taking drawing lessons from Cabin Fever’s pancake loving Dennis.

On one hand, Art of the Devil is a fairly straight story about a woman scorned and those that suffer in her tracks. This being my first full Thai film, I don’t know how indicative it is of that nation’s genre films but it’s a well-made, albeit tragically dubbed horror with some earned scares and haunting moments. It also contains paper-thin characters that leave little impression and a convoluted second act script that gets lost in a tangle of unnecessary mystery. For this viewer, the final effect rested somewhere in the middle.

High Points
It’s a personal taste to be sure, but I just never tire of seeing crayon colored scenes of child-like carnage
Low Points
Not sure if it’s the English track or original sound choice, but making the demon voices sound alternately like South Park’s Satan and an angry Munchkin of Oz wasn’t the best idea anybody’s ever had

Lessons Learned
People will think your man isn’t macho if he doesn’t take a few sips of liquor in private
Doctor/patient confidentiality in Thailand is defined as thus: call a nurse. Ask for information regarding a future appointment of another person, and receive a complete medical history of said stranger along with a full report of past visits
Saying “I don’t drink” doesn’t really mean anything if you reluctantly down a glass nine times over the course of a 100 minute film
Working around drunk people can be dangerous (yet much safer than having a vengeful sister-in-law)

If viewed with proper subtitling, Art of the Devil may indeed by something of an effective ghostly revenge story. Eerie imagery occasionally oozes in, and voodoo fans or those interested in South East Asian spiritual vengeance tales may find the film compelling. On the other hand, the English dubbed track that runs with the Instant Watch cut simply can’t fail to make you laugh at everything from forced sound (apparently characters are never silent but will indeed mumble “Uh” on constant loop when alone onscreen) and clumsily translated dialog. I don’t discourage a watch, as the last half does kick into fairly creepy territory, but at the same time, I can think of few readers who will fall in love with this film. If found at a library in its original Thai track, give it ago. If slightly drunk (even though you don’t drink and/or don’t mind not appearing macho), watch with refills.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Lottos and Torture and Boars, Oh My!

The time has come.

Kind of.

On May 23rd, the world said goodbye to something very special. Scoff at unexplained physics, the mere presence of Nikki & Paulo, and the weekly questioning of “Why are you telling me this?” but for six years, LOST gave us a weekly viewing experience unlike anything else ever seen on television.

So how to fill that Hurley-sized void in your Island-less heart? One way ticket to Hawaii? Pricey. Enlistment in the Dharma Initiative? Perilous. New career as a con man/spinal surgeon/fertility doctor/rock star/protector of golden light? There has to be an easier way!

And naturally, there is and all you need are a few great horror movies. So dear Islanders and Tailies, Sideways inhabitants and Others, I give you a few key elements of your favorite ABC show and how you might fill them.

1. Terry O’Quinn

Even Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof couldn't let go of one of the industry’s longest underrated actors, a bald and enigmatic presence so vital to the universe that he took on a whole new role as Evil (maybe) Incarnate in the final two, post-dead John Locke seasons. So where does one go for that sparking blue-eyed smile that never quite feels right? The late 80s, naturally. In 1987’s The Stepfather (and its first sequel), O’Quinn plays--wait, who is he again? We’ll call him Jerry, the name he takes to woo a lovely widow and later, attempt to kill her and the family she has left. By far the second best way to see this charmer wield an oversized knife.

2. Torture

Sayid, you scamp! From the Iraqi National Guard to Sawyer’s fingernails, everyone’s favorite curly-haired loveboat was quite the expert when it came to inflicting pain. Life won’t quite be the same without his sad puppy dog eyes seeking validation or that petite Benjamin Linus accepting that sweaty fist in his cheek, but thanks to the 21st century trend of torture porn, you can at least pretend their spirits live on. Sure, you could go standard and find a cheap boxed set of Saw or Hostel, but why not make like Charles Widmore sipping aged scotch and go classy with the philosophical genre twisting Martyrs. Yes, you’ll have to read subtitles (unless you decide to wait for the American remake, brought to you by the people who made Twilight which is sure to be the best thing you can possibly ever in your life witness) and yes, the film isn’t for everyone, but much like Lost, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs takes viewers on an ambiguous, poetic, and post-death journey (maybe) that happens to be accompanied by a whole lot of blood and beatings.

3. Crazy French Woman Trying to Steal Your Baby

Danielle Rousseau, we hardly knew ye, but one thing we were sure of was just how much you missed your little girl. Left alone for 16 years with nothing but surprisingly tame bangs and a rifle, this shipwrecked mother wanted nothing more than her child back in her arms...even if (briefly), she had to take someone else’s. Where to find that special mother with a hole in her heart? Easy: Inside. Beatrice Dalle’s La Femme. Basically, it’s the same exact thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

4. Surgeons Under the Influence

From Jack’s shaky pain medicated hands to his dad’s functional alcoholism, Lost was never a role model for hospital interns. Now that Dr. Shepard squared has gone on to a better, hopefully less accident-prone place, where will we fans ever find our illegal and falsified prescriptions of malpracticing hunks? Canada, naturally. In David Cronenberg’s 1988 masterpiece Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons plays--whaddya know--two related gynecologists slowly slipping into a drug addicted depression. While wielding medical instruments. On women’s vaginas. Wow. This makes a mere 18-hour spinal cord rebuilding look like a romp on the beach.

5. Undoing the Past

“What happened, happened!” shouted so many an island survivor, but Lost’s final season tried awfully hard to put us in a reality where it didn’t. For a somewhat similar plot thread, check out 2004’sThe Butterfly Effect, an ambitiously flawed sci-fi love story of sorts that also shared a few random Lost ties: leading men temporarily bound to wheelchairs, likable dogs, surprise bombs with devastating results, and black-and-white journals that also serve as vouchers for time traveling.

6. Boars

John Locke instantly proved his worth by serving up porkchops his first week as a castaway, but Gary Oldman found himself on the wrong side of dinner when his wheelchair-bound--whoa! double link!--millionaire molester reunited with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector.

7. Smoke Monster

Gray precipitation that moistens the air and summons ghosts? Call your lawyer, John Carpenter! Though Smokey, aka The Man In Black When Mobile didn’t have a whole lot in common with the pirate ghoulies of 1980’s The Fog, there are plenty of random links: shipwrecks, radio towers, Maggie Grace (a few steps removed of course). But hey. It’s John Carpenter’s The Fog. Do you really need another reason?

8. The Lottery

Ever say to yourself “If my numbers would just come up, all my problems would be solved!” Then you watched Hugo “Hurley” Reyes lose his friends, grandfather, and sanity in a pile of green and said, “Well, A LOT of my other problems would still be solved!” Maybe you need a harsher lesson in the fickle nature of Lady Luck. If that’s the case, queue up Final Destination 2 for a reality check, where one newly minted motorcyclist learns the hard way that money may buy gold rings and frozen dinners, but it won’t pay off Death to spare you from an eye gouging via fire escape.

9. Plane Crash

First class or coach, passengers on Oceanic Flight 815 started the series with a horror movie of their own, a crash that had the nerve to menace them even on land (pity the poor sucked-into-engine pilot). For the big screen, few films have ever quite matched the chaotic horror of 1993’s Alive, a crash made all the more terrifying by the fact that it actually happened.

10. The Numbers

Though we never learned the true significance of 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42, just knowing such digits held mystical and/or electromagnet powers was enough to keep us constantly ruminating on their place in the world (and on our own lottery tickets). What better companion piece is there then, than Vincenzo Natali's low budget 1997 mystery Cube, a film which shares Lost’s penchant for ambiguity, mismatched people forced to work together, and characters named after something they vaguely represent (in this case, American prisons). Also, savvy mathematicians (which thankfully includes one of Cube’s leads) are quick to latch onto the numerals found inside each cubic doorway, decoding their meaning and thus providing Losies with their own fan-fiction fantasy answer involving square roots and booby traps. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hear Me!

Or I'll make it so you never hear again!

Wow. That was harsh. Excuse me while I lighten the mood.

That's better.

Loyal fans and/or musical theater nerds should know that last week marked a triumphant convergent of master geekery at its finest when Neil Patrick Harris guest starred on a Joss Whedon directed episode of GLEE. Many viewers experienced nirvana. Seriously, it was like Martyrs but without the headwraps. And torture. To hear my and co-hostess cupcake Erica's take, I give thee Episode 6 of the one and only gleeKast (with a K; there's one with a C and I don't lie). 

And speaking of Martyrs...

How about a little vegemite with that beating? You can find some here at Girls On Film Podcast , where I guested on the illustrious Rachel of 's new estrogen-fueled chat about Predator, kangaroos, and everybody's favorite French genre bender. Spoilers are many, the audio quality scratchy, Australia offended, and four ladies--including Christine of Paracinema Magazine and the thus far blogless, yet movie-smartful Deborah--have a grand ol' time. You should listen.

Otherwise, this happens:

And that makes no one happy.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oy Vey

I would like, if I may, take you on a strange journey.
HOW STRANGE? you shout with your water pistols aimed.
Strange enough that back when George Bush was still in office, I watched the trailer for The Unborn in a crowded Friday night movie theater and said to my ticket buddy, “Am I crazy, or does that look kind of good?”
Ahhhh, the folly of youth! I knew then that what I was seeing in a 2 minute, heavily edited preview was by far the best moments this Platinum Dunes film had to offer. Still, I was mildly intrigued to the point that a year and library card swipe later, The Unborn somehow ended up in my DVD player. 

I suppose we've learned that sometimes, the library is not necessarily our friend.
Quick Plot: Meet Casey (Odette Yustman), a rich young college student who should really eat more. Such a chore is difficult, however, when upon cracking some cholesterol-loaded eggs, strange thorax-heavy potato bugs spring free. 

Couple this with an earlier dream involving a mask-wearing dog, buried bottled fetus, and blue-eyed child dressed in Holocaust duds and you’ve got a fragile woman in typical stalked-by-dybbuks mode.
Turns out, Casey was formerly a twin who unceremoniously strangled her brother in the womb with her umbilical cord. Badass, right? Not really, since all Yustman can do throughout the film is look sad and/or cute in underwear. You would think a character with a parents played by the utterly awesome James Remar and Carla Gugino would at least have some spark of personality, but that’s asking an awful lot from a movie too busy drenching itself in blue, musical cues carefully timed for jump scares (and thusly negating said jump scare), and lazily researched Jewish mythology.
See, Casey is being haunted/stalked by a dybbuk, an evil entity described in Hebrew lore as a wandering soul that attaches itself to humans. For Casey, this in an inherited problem akin to baldness, something grandmother and mother faced with varying results (Grandma kicked its ass in a concentration camp; Mama hung herself in failure).  The side effects are varied: yes, it seems to be driving those around her insane and homicidal (poor babysitting charge and sassy friend that hates old people) but it also means that Casey gets to sport snappy blue contacts and use an oversized bathroom at a busy club all by herself! When does that ever happen?!

The bathroom scene is important to note because it pretty much encompasses the limitations of The Unborn in 3 minutes. As Casey embraces a sparkling stainless steel toilet to vomit away (hmmmm...I wonder what THAT can mean), an icky mixture of brown fluid and insects starts to take over the ladies room. The lighting goes all strobe, the music gets intense, and poor pretty Casey screams. For a brief moment, it’s actually effective and then we realize--well before it happens--that the scene is bound to end with her bland boyfriend opening the door to the lights back on, floors cleaner than Joan Crawford’s tile, and Casey crunched in the corner wondering where all the CGI went. 
And that’s The Unborn in a nutshell, a film with some intriguing imagery and ambitious story ideas squished into a modern formula of J-horror makeovers with watered down American soda. I didn’t mention Gary Oldman, who enters late in the tale to exhaustively play a rabbi with a lot of free time on his hands. I should give a quick shout-out to Stringer Bell (yes I know his name is Idris Elba and no, I will still never refer to him, nor any actor formerly of The Wire, as anything but their Baltimore name) playing a kind, if irresponsible priest. I was happy to see C.S. Lee (Remar’s Dexter costar) as an optometrist. I like that the dybbuk’s name “Jumby” summoned all sorts of imagination in me picturing Pee-Wee’s pal Jambi trying to reborn in Yustman’s womb. That made me happy enough.

Yup. That’s about it.
High Points
Thought it doesn’t give us any context and therefore ultimately falls flat, the opening dream sequence is rather promising in its use of surreal imagery

Low Points
Yes, men and women of particular persuasions will find something to admire in Yustman’s model look, but the rest of us search fruitlessly for any iota of reason to actually care about what happens to her. It’s not so much the acting as it is the fact that the character has no defining characteristics to make her likable or existent

Lessons Learned
Stroke victims are surprisingly spry when possessed by Jewish demons

Windchimes chiming are a sign that a dubbuk is near. They're also a sign that it’s windy

While this has nothing to do with any plot point and ultimately has no consequence, I still think it’s a bad idea to go to sleep with your expensive Mac book at the foot of your bed

The best way to unite all faiths and end religious war is to hold an exorcism

Eh. As hard as I’m being on The Unborn, it was at least a mildly original entry into the “The U-” craze of horror earlier this year. There are some vaguely interesting visuals at work, but this is still a rather dull barely-there footprint in theatrical American horror. Catch it on cable or with a few good drinks. In the right altered state, I can see the sight of one of this era’s best actor wearing a yarmulke and blowing into a sparkly Vegas-style religious didgeridoo being a much better time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Big Brother Is Hunting You (because you asked him to)

Gameshow horror is a subgenre I rarely don’t enjoy. Sure, it’s seen some horrific misfires (Halloween: Resurrection) but there’s something always intriguing about the mundane competition typically watched by pension-collecting grandmothers being subverted by dystopian elements and over-the-top homicidal maniacs.
Slashers initially piqued my interest for its writer-director (and producer and editor and most likely, caterer) Maurice Devereaux, the Canadian filmmaker who blew me away with End of the Line . When I discovered his 2001 comedic bloodbath was about a violently extreme Japanese gameshow featuring actual killers hacking up wannabe stars, I was sold.

Quick Plot: Six silly Americans with adorable Canadian accents sign up for Slashers!, Japan’s version of voluntary Running Man. The game is simple: survive a few hours being chased by charismatic psychos and win $18 million dollars.
Easy, right? Well, easier than Survivor or Series 7, but no walk in the artificial warehouse park. The villains are presented as WWF-like bad guys, ridiculous caricatures designed to inspire catchphrases and sell t-shirts. Preacherman slithers around with a Jigsaw-like mask and well-recited scripture. The Doctor giggles (though sadly doesn’t have the name Dr. Giggles) and cuts women’s tops off (leading to one female character having more costume changes than Madonna’s Evita) and most memorably, Chainsaw Charlie hunts with the face of A.E. Newman, the voice of George W. Bush, and the hair of Carrot Top (actually, combine those three things with Satan’s urine and you do indeed have Carrot Top).

The trio of murderers chases a typical batch of rather obnoxious money/fame mongers who do little to garner much audience sympathy. A muscle-popping boxer fares the best, while our lead law student with an agenda tries our patience. Nobody really matters, as this is satire at its meanest, far more concerned with lampooning our greed and boob-tube obsessions than telling a heroic saga of a plucky final girl.

Filmed in 2001, Slashers! is a product of the reality TV dynasty and though it doesn’t quite capture the everyone’s-a-killer charm of Series 7, this is tasty enough candy bar of a horror comedy treat. Not all the jokes fly, but from the skull pop-poms wielded by Slashers! dancers to the slippery practicality of a guts-covered ground, it’s good and gross fun at its low budget best.
High Points
It’s refreshing to see homemade practical effects, even if they occasionally feel like a first-year midterm for Savini University

Reality programs are only as good as their villains, and the trio here are quite enjoyable
Low Points
Bless them for giving full energy, but the performances of the “American” contestants are pretty damn grating
Between heavily masked characters, Japanese actors speaking broken English, and the lack of subtitles, some of Slashers’ dialog is near inaudible

Lessons Learned
It figures that a plastic clown would carry a plastic knife
When your body is severed from its lower half via chainsaw, the effect is very pinatic
Letting a chainsaw ‘rest for awhile’ won’t make it work later
I thoroughly enjoyed Slashers! but its low budget execution and amateur performances are in no way going to please the masses. Fans of End of the Line will find a completely different film here, as the horror comedy approach spares no punning or bite of bad taste. It’s a recommended rental for those who know they won’t be watching a clearly defined genre film, and those who like it will be brought to special feature orgasm by the loaded DVD, complete with a commentary, hourlong documentary, and a bevy of original features (“Beneath the Actor’s Studio”’s interview with Chainsaw Charlie was a personal favorite). I give fair warning that this is a divisive film nobody will really LOVE, but will humbly accept your thanks if and when you find it a good time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Aw, us amerikens r sew darn dumm

Making a sequel to a film that, by many accounts (mine included) is the best horror movie to debut this century is no easy feat. How do you follow up one of cinema’s most pleasantly terrifying surprises without pooping all over fans expectations?
Well The Descent 2 does KIND of literally poop on viewers

(thank goodness this film was shot before the ubiquitous craze of 3D)

...but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Think of it as a surprisingly edible slice from an upstate NY pizzeria: not especially good, but surpassing the below-zero expectations you probably had based on the fact that that the sauce looked questionable, the crusts lacked character, and the restaurant’s name was “Donald’s Pizza and Diet Delights”
Quick Plot: Two days after the disappearance of Juno & Co., a raving (and conveniently amnesiac) Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is discovered covered in her friends’ blood type by a dirty Appalachian Yankees fan (boo, hiss, foreshadows of evil). Hesitant to draw too much media coverage, town sheriff Vaines (Gavan O’Herlihy, playing a surlier cross between Tom Atkins and Lost’s Mr. Friendly) orders a rescue team to quietly venture underground, himself, deputy, and suspicious Sarah in tow.

It doesn’t take long for some Very Bad Things to happen, mostly thanks to the full-swing stupidity of a good ol’ American boy and his trigger happy ways. A gunshot causes a rock fall, which turn turns a lot of separated spelunkers into easy pickings for familiar crawlers.
If you haven’t seen The Descent--scratch that. Of course you have. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t, so if you ARE here and you HAVEN’T, then you’ve discovered some sort of non-reality in this universe that may or may not be the ending of Lost. 

And I'm not ready for that.

So yes. You’ve seen The Descent, and thusly have a pretty good idea of what to expect in its follow-up. More cave dwellers. More closeups of Batboy lookalikes screeching to the stalagmite skies. Strong women that can kick ass and, most likely, do non-girl pushups while still looking hot. Lots of British accents despite the film being set in the American south.
These points are not necessarily bad. For all its contrived plotting (are non-soap operas even ALLOWED to use ‘short-term amnesia’ for major explanations?), The Descent 2 is actually one of the more respectful sequels to be made, taking its time to homage its predecessors via visuals and character. At times, it feels uninspired and merely lazy but on the other hand, that’s the very nature of unambitious sequels with prominent write-ups in Fangoria.

This is not Neil Marshall’s surprise masterpiece. Where the original was considered everything from a study in female power dynamics to an analogy of US foreign policy, The Descent 2 is its kid sister tripping around the house in Mom’s high heels. The scares are more gutty than primal and characters display about as much intelligence as the subscribing constituent of The Weekly World News (those keeping Batboy in business), but as directed by The Descent’s editor Jon Harris, this is a fun enough romp that more than entertained me for 93.5 minutes.

High Points
An early ick-scare involving a corpse and surprise squatter is a pleasantly gross jump
While The Descent 2 never quite captures the claustrophobic horror so suffocating in its original, one character’s quick realization that she’s near-buried in treacherous rocks is actually quite scary and sad

Low Points
What worked so well about Juno’s villainy in the orignal was the complexity of her responsibility. Yes, she did a very stupid thing leading her friends into an abyss, but it came from a brash, overconfident and believable place mixed with residual guilt. By contrast, Vaines’ decision to go cave-diving and his execution in doing so is simply idiotic and the sign of a man afflicted with severe mental retardation.
So we can all totally agree that those last 30 seconds never happened, yes?
Lessons Learned
Americans are bad people who inevitably mess everything up
The most appropriate uniform for fighting carnivorous cave people is a smoking pair of hot pants
When investigating the disappearance of five physically adept women underground in unchartered and unstable caves, it’s best to not tell a single other authority figure where you’re actually going

Just because you have handcuffs in your pocket does not mean you have to use them
For curiosity alone, give this film a shot. No, you won’t be clutching your cat in fear (as I did on first viewing of Marshall’s debut), but if you approach The Descent 2 knowing you’re watching a typical sequel, the experience isn’t wasted. Those who are easily offended by subpar followups should avoid it, but a good deal of horror fans willing to let go of expectation will probably find themselves more entertained here than with 63% of other unambitious nontheatrical releases. The DVD is busting with features, including a commentary and thorough making-of. Give it a chance, then shoot your venom or mild enthusiasm below.