Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Simple Good Film

You know what doesn't suck? 

You know what else doesn't suck? Things That Don't Suck, a fine film and book blog run by Bryce Wilson. This week, the mighty Bryce is putting together Raimifest, a cabin in the woods style party in blogathon form. Head on over for seven full days of grooviness, but first, here's my simple contribution:

A Simple Plan might be the saddest film I’ve seen in a long time.
I was not expecting as such. I knew it was Sam Raimi. I knew it was well-respected as a  tight story told with great winter atmosphere. I knew it starred my future husband Bill Paxton (when he’s old and wrinkly and blind I think I can successfully marry him without him even knowing it, and yes, I’ve thought this through thoroughly) and that Billy Bob Thorton was on the box cover. Once the credits rolled, I realized I’d get to hear a Danny Elfman score in a non-Tim Burton movie (and much like the Helena Bonham Carter Quandry, I figured that would probably produce better results) and have the excitement to look forward to a Gary Cole appearance.
I didn’t think this movie would break my heart.
Quick Plot: A New Year’s trip to their mother’s grave proves life-changing for Hank (the always dreamy Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), two very different brothers who, along with Jacob’s town drunk pal Lou, discover a crashed plane and a mysterious bag filled with 4.4 million dollars in unmarked hundred dollar bills. After much tense discussion, the trio decides to split the cash once news of the crash comes and goes.

Much like that brilliant episode of The Simpsons, the men learn over the course of the film that dividing anything three ways--be it a Radioactive Man Edition 1 or fortune--is a surefire path towards disaster. The effects are a little more lasting here.
The story of A Simple Plan is written by Scott Smith, the same smartly horrific mind behind The Ruins. In a lot of ways, it’s none too complex but what Smith and Raimi do so well is create the perfect characters who would end up in a progressively more doomed situation with every decision they make post-money tease. Hank is presented as the brains of the three, the college grad with a lovely and expecting wife (Bridget Fonda), a real job, and the sense to plot their success. Sure, we can guess by the very nature of the film that it’s Hank who will have the biggest fall, but to watch his morals die with every choice he makes is absolutely fascinating, particularly when coupled with the subtle Lady Macbeth-ness of a partner who just wants what she could potentially have.

On the other side is Jacob, played by a then-lesser known Thornton as a walking tragedy. He’s a sad, seemingly not smart man with little ambition or hope for, well, anything in life. There are probably some great lessons in screenwriting somewhere in the film in how Hank and Jacob are portrayed. Without too much specific expository conversations, we get the full family portrait of these men as brothers, a lifetime of latent resentment on Jacob‘s part in response to Hank’s seemingly foreign superiority. Even those who simply despise Thorton and his fear of antique furniture will probably soften during his big revelatory scene, a truly uncomfortable car talk where he recounts the truth behind his only real romance. 

So yes, the characterization inside A Simple Plan is top notch. Pair that with a tight story that snowballs into horrors and you have a fairly incredible slice of winter horror.
High Points
From the very first scene, we get the precise dynamics of Hank, Jacob, and Lou, something that always feels believable and provides an instant understanding for us of who these men are and how they fit together

No spoilers here, but the final shots and ultimate finale are quite brilliant in a sort of ironic twisty way you often get in great short stories
Low Points

Lessons Learned
In addition to producing vitamins and soreness, breastfeeding might provide you with a brand new sense of Shakespearean villainy
Always ask to see a badge

Because I’m someone that gets easily confused, I often mixed up A Simple Plan with the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. I’m simple like that, perhaps. At the same time, having now SEEN both films, I feel unconsciously smart because aside from a titular word, both have a similar style that could easily work on a tense double bill. A Simple Plan is, I’ve decided, a great film not just for its tense narrative, but for what it does with ‘real’ people caught up a mess of their own making. Sure, it’s a story told timeless times before, but Raimi and Smith truly do make something great out of it by focusing on how a basic thing like wanting a few million dollars could tear apart not only your life and freedom, but very sense of what kind of person you are capable of being. It may be one of the best tragedies I’ve seen in some time.

Head this way for more Raiminess!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life Is Good, And Not JUST 'Cause of Bacon Bread (though that accounts for a huge part of it)

This might be all you need to know that Horror Hound Indianapolis 2011 was a magical place.

The fact that I now own this is further proof:

Most importantly, I got to spend three days with truly wonderful folks from across the country and Interwaves. I’ve been to my share of horror conventions (because I am indeed THAT cool) but believe me when I say there is something truly magical in the air at Horror Hound, maybe because it’s some sort of positive Pontypool contagion being spread by Night of the Living Podcast. Who can be sure? The point it, those who were there, I adore you and those who weren’t were indeed missed. Please do your best to fly, teleport, hitch, or commandeer a late Veterans’ Day parade to Cincinnati come November for the next event. 

We'll be waiting.
Okay fine, there is one thing better than the spectacular wonderful snuggable pals I shared beers and karaoke verses with, and that would be Bacon Bread. For those who don’t know, breakfast buffets are great places that sometimes offer vats of bacon to their guests. 

There’s a lot of grease in bacon vats. Grease that would be wasted were it not for something to collect it, something absorbent and edible. Something that will, with enough time and liquid, turn into a treat more delicious than anything you have or will ever taste. Bacon Bread makes life worth living, although the downside is that once you eat it, you increase your chance of immediate death by 88%. So pace yourself with your Bacon Bread, savor each juicy bite but pull back once the palpitations kick in. We need you to last at least until November.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gone Houndin'

Indy style. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Q This

I’ve wanted to watch Q The Winged Serpent for a ridiculous amount of years. Then I forgot about it. Rinse, repeat. Thankfully, I had lunch at a Thai restaurant last week and what poster should they have hanging on their lobby wall? 

Oh yeah. Q-ueue it! 
Quick Plot: Random New Yorkers are being grabbed by a gigantic stop animation winged creature, their blood and limbs that don’t make the diet dropped down upon unsuspecting and horrified pedestrians. Only Michael Moriarty--here playing an ex-con, ex-addict wannabe jazz pianist--and cool detective David Carradine can save the city.

The best thing I can say for Q is that in the first ten minutes, the following events transpire:
-A man is skinned
-Blood rains down upon Manhattan
-Michael Moriarty scats
I’ll bet you a Metrocard swipe you guess how I feel about this film.
Slowly, but surely, I’m coming to realize how very much I adore the canon of Larry Cohen. From the haunting monologues of God Told Me To to the giddy insanity of The Stuff, he’s a filmmaker that never fails to be interesting. Like The Stuff, Q is never actually scary, instead tapping into the grimy spirit of ‘80s Manhattan, the utter oddness of Michael Moriarty, and the glorious then-modernization of old school giant urban monster mashing. It’s kind of a joy in all possible directions

High Points
Enough can’t be said about Michael Moriarity in a Larry Cohen film. The man seems batshit insane in real life, but when working with a Cohen script, his bizarre approach is simply fascinating.

Low Points
Between the adorably dated stop motion and quirky script, there’s nothing actually scary about Q, but isn’t that okay when we have lines like “Maybe his head just got loose and fell off?”
Lessons Learned
The Chrysler is a great place to hide things

Even the toughest gangster can lose some street cred when he sports a vibrant velour track suit
Mimes can make surprisingly effective--and silent--spies

The more PC way of saying ‘flayed’ is ‘skinning’
I will eventually add Q to my collection because much like just about every Cohen film I’ve ever seen, I get the feeling it will benefit from repeat viewings when the surprise factor can be replaced with relaxed enjoyment. The DVD includes a typically fun Cohen/Bill Lustig commentary, a great discussion that reveals some hilarious tips for directing Moriarty (hint: it involves songwriting). 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide

A single mom brings home a doll for her lonely child’s birthday, only to then watch the babysitter and a few strangers die in suspicious accidents. Sound familiar?

Sometimes a cash-in on a popular horror franchise takes a few years. Such is the case for 1996’s Pinocchio’s Revenge, a Child’s Play wannabe with a surprising amount of mid-90s heart.
Quick Plot: Divorcee Jennifer is under a little stress, partially from being a public defender of death row inmates and more so from being mom to a bright, annoying, and possibly psychotic little girl named Zoe. Bitter about her father’s absence, Zoe raises the eyebrows of her child psychologist and gets into schoolyard brawls with some of the other second graders. The kid needs a friend.

Conveniently enough, Mom is just closing out a depressing appeal case where she unsuccessfully defended a man accused of murdering his son. Though he admitted his crime, Jennifer always suspected he was innocent and the only bit of evidence she has to go on is the titular wooden doll found with the deceased’s body. Through an assortment of chess moves, Pinocchio ends up home in bed with Zoe as her new brother/best friend that seems to cause an awful lot of accidents.

I will tell no lies here: I’ve been wanting to watch Pinocchio’s Revenge for a good 10+ years, ever since its VHS cover piqued my interest in the waning days of my rental habit. Now on Instant Watch, I’m one step closer to having completed everything I needed to in life and hence, one step closer to having my brains bashed in by a wooden marionette.

But on a lighter note, how’s the movie? Ridiculous, a tad slow, and somewhere in between, magnificent.
Directed by cult dude Kevin Tenney (Night of the Demons, Witchboard), Pinocchio’s Revenge seemed to have based itself on an IMDB bit of trivia on the Child’s Play page, a note that claimed writer Don Mancini’s original intention was to tease out the mystery of whether it was Chucky or his boy keeper Andy that was actually responsible for the killings. In Pinocchio’s Revenge, we’re never quite sure of the same question. It’s a good hour into the film before we hear the little fella speak, and some of the action afterwards still points towards Zoe’s own instability. 
For a straight to VHS killer doll film, it’s actually somewhat impressive. Granted Pinnochio himself ain’t no Talking Tina. Sure, his design is mildly unsettling (and his E.T.  waddle adorable), but Tenney seems to prefer fancy camera tricks to solid doll action, constantly following dramatic shots like closeups of sharp knives with CLOSEUPS OF BUTTER KNIVES SLICING BANANAS! Or a heavily music cued shot of a dead cricket (Pinocchio’s slaughtered conscience) immediately underscored by A SLOW MOTION SHOT OF A GLASS OF ORANGE JUICE SMASHING INTO PIECES! 

You get the point. There’s some genuine ambition at making a ‘psychological thriller’ out of what essentially boils down to a good old fashioned killer doll movie, which is interesting, if occasionally dull. Considering Pinocchio’s Revenge is already combating a low budget and mid-90s fashion crisis, the actual scares don’t really hold up (although I’ll concede the fact that the 6-year-old doll-o-phobe I once was would probably have been incredibly creeped out had this debuted during my youth). But still...look at this guy:

High Points
You have to admire the restraint of a movie called Pinocchio’s Revenge that refuses to give us any actual evil doll action until more than an hour into its running time
Though Brittany Alyse Smith is a tad annoying as Zoe, lead actress Rosalind Allen does manage to create a genuine person as the harried single mom

Low Points
There might be something neat in ending on a mystery, but having sat through Pinocchio’s Revenge, it also feels like we deserve to know exactly WHAT happened
Lessons Learned
Episcopalian=Catholic lite, and believing in evil is one of its job requirements
Always read up on whatever hospital you’re admitted to. It’d be a shame if you end up in one where no nurses ever stop by to check your life support system’s status

If your child is possibly demonstrating homicidal tendencies, it might be a good idea to warn the friendly Italian au pair when leaving the kid in her care

The Winning Line
"Spoon me!"
Hey, we all enjoy that, but not when our partners are so darn aggressive about it
Granted this is a film made for the type of viewer that I am, but I thoroughly enjoyed Pinoochio’s Revenge as a much smarter little horror film that it had any right to be. Coming off an age of Rumplestilstskin and Dolly Dearest, this easily could have gone the tiny killer route but for whatever reason, Pinocchio’s Revenge decided to try something new. You probably won’t be frightened and hey, there are definitely more entertaining evil little things films out there, but for a 90 minute surprise, you might be satisfied. 
If nothing else, it’s funner than A.I.! 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Death Chair: The Chair That Drags You Into a Hell Dimension

The more closely I watch films, the more pretentiously observant I come to think myself as being.

Damnit! In typing that sentence, I just broke another monocle. Good thing I get these things in bulk!
What I was trying to say--sorry, I should pause the Chopin so you can hear me--is that lately, I’ve been paying closer attention to things that make a film rather than just the film itself. I started thinking about this back when I watched Fabrice Du Weiz’s Calvaire and continuously thought, “this is an incredibly well-made film sitting inside a mediocre one.” Full thoughts on that over on episode 18 of the Girls On Film Podcast. It made me want to seek out more from the director, and now having seen his fairly incredible followup Vinyan, I get why.

I bring this up because last year, I watched a frustratingly nasty but quite well-constructed torturesome flick called Broken, made by Adam Mason and co-written by Simon Boyes. It made me miserable, but I couldn’t deny it bore the promise of an intriguing filmmaking team with better work ahead.
Hence, today I test that theory with their 2007 feature, The Devil’s Chair.
Have a seat.
Quick Plot: A pair of horny drug doers named Nick West and Sammy head to an abandoned lunatic asylum to pop some LSD and have kinky sex in a mysteriously rusted torture-ready chair. 
Some of us call such events ‘Thursday.’
It’s all very sexy in a grungy and not actually sexy way until the titular apparatus closes on Sammy, tearing at her flesh before evaporating the screaming addict into thin air.

Flash forward a few years to West as a patient in a mental asylum. Experimental psychologist Dr. Willard decides to cure his delusions by bringing West back to the site of his lady love’s disappearance, dragging a few assistants along the way.
Before you can hum the opening bars to “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” everyone is taking turns popping a squat and subsequently getting sent into an alternate Hellraiser-ish dimension where a freaky demon is on the hunt.

Different, right? Throughout the film, West narrates with an amused tongue-in-cheek attitude, something that rounds The Devil’s Chair in a self-aware state. We don’t quite know how seriously to take the Silent Hill-esque horrors lurking on the other side and while it might subtract something from the scare factor, it also gives the film a unique and wicked sense of humor that pays off well in a rather horrifying finale.

High Points
To go into too much detail on the performances may lead to spoilers, but I will say some of the hammier acting might be more clever than you think and throughout it all, lead Andrew Howard (the sheriff from the I Spit On Your Grave remake) is pretty fantastic

Low Points
Though the hell side of The Devil’s Chair has its moments, it also, unfortunately, has a whole lot of shabby CGI
Lessons Learned
A typical psychological research team will, without any question, include exceedingly attractive females

British people have odd ideas of pajamas, unless skeleton t-shirts, white riding pants, and boots are actually comfortable

In alternate hell dimensions, it’s very hard to hear giant monsters sneaking up on you, even when there’s nothing else anywhere near you making a noise

The Devil’s Chair is quite a confident little slice of genre fare that has some mean fun with tried and true conventions. Like Broken, it’s not for the faint of heart but it hits you hard with an interesting lead character, brutal imagery, and an effective twist that will most likely divide its blood-covered audience. It might not be for you, but if the style and story sound like your grog, have a seat (not in anything with rust) and give it a try.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where's M'Casino Player's Card?

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Here it is St. Patrick’s Day and all Emily could do was act as 85% of the horror blogosphere and post a review of a Leprechaun movie? Way to think inside the box.’
Thanks guys, thanks a lot. Excuse me while I crouch in a corner now and cry, drinking my sorrows away with some Guinness and soaking up my tears with Irish soda bread. All I wanted to do was be seasonal.  
Quick Plot: At a Las Vegas pawn shop, a one-legged/one-eyed man frantically accepts $20 from Gupta (the store owner who politely reminds the audience of his name by referring to himself in the third person) for a brass statue of, you guessed it, a leprechaun.

A leprechaun!
Herein lies my first (and later, second) issue with Leprechaun 3: at several points in the film, a character asks our titular villain “Who are you?” His answer always remains as thus:
“I’m a leprechaun!”

Yes, by this time in history, Wayne’s World had already cemented that line as a cultural gold coin, but the last time someone asked me who I was, you can bet your buckled shoe my response was not “I’m a human being.”
But why am I wasting time on the details when I’ve got a movie about a leprechaun turning mob goons into human slot machines? Onward!
So Gupta reawakens the unnamed leprechaun, taking one of his shillings while researching leprechaun lore via an adorably dated CD-ROM with Happy Little Elves-like animation. Meanwhile, Scott, the world’s oldest looking 18 year old, is making a Vegas pit stop on his way to college orientation when he stops to pick up Tammy, a frustrated magician’s assistant. Ten minutes later, he’s lost $25,000 at the roulette table (because he’s an idiot) and is desperately trying to pawn his watch across the street.

Naturally, Scott ends up at Gupta’s counter just as the leprechaun is putting on his final kill moves. Like a good midwest boy, Scott calls the police and picks up the missing gold coin, instantly wishing himself back at the casino for an impossible winning streak that makes dealer Caroline Williams (the lovable Slack from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) rather suspicious. Because leprechaun gold coins can apparently grant your wishes, Scott indeed DOES end up on an impossible winning streak while Tammy (if you still care) slaves in a leotard for a hilariously Gob-like magician named Fazio.
In terms of storyline, Leprechaun 3 feels surprisingly complicated, with Scott and Tammy’s pseudo-romance, the sleazy casino owner’s money troubles, Fazio and Caroline Williams’ heist, and the leprechaun’s rampage all crammed tightly in a brisk 90 minutes. Scott also has a mini-arc regarding a leprechaun bite that transforms him into a gingery potato eating rhymer. Sure.
Despite a cluttered storyline, the film is actually a pretty darn good time. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot) maintains a nice spirit of lightheartedness in every frame, getting energetic performances out of every actor, from the wide-eyed leads to a random Elvis impersonator who yes, teaches a move or two to the leprechaun. Why would he not?

High Points
I love a movie that has fun with its kills, and between the plastic surgery blow-up and robot sex electrocution that seems weirdly foreshadowing that creepy Russian vodka mascot, Leprechaun 3 isn’t lacking

There’s a nice, not too forced comic vibe to some of the supporting characters, particularly with Fazio and the entertaining Williams, but also with a pair of chatty mob goons and some bored surgeons
Low Points
I have an odd pet peeve with unambitious opening credits, which just feel like a time waster rather than mood setter. Leprechaun 3 opens with a black screen and vaguely Irish music playing as we learn about the supporting cast and composers. Just start the leprechauning already
Lessons Learned
A Fazio is a mediocre magician who couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a pet store

Without his gold, a leprechaun is just a gnome
In Las Vegas, it’s perfectly normal for brass statues of mythical creatures to disappear and be replaced by pots of gold coins. No need to jump or look around for a candid camera
The definition of a Las Vegas penis: heat sinking moisture missile
As a rule, people usually can’t tell you where they’ve hidden your gold when they are dead
A check for $25,000 should cover your first year of college tuition and living expenses

Not to be obvious, but by this point, you've probably had more than your share of Irish Car Bombs, so I'll spell it out for you: be careful what you wish for

Look, we all know that the Leprechaun series sort of epitomizes the general consensus that the ‘90s were a nadir in horror franchises, so calling this third installment the best won’t mean a whole lot. Still, Leprechaun 3 is a surprisingly enjoyable little monster flick,  one well aware of its audience and eager to give them the laughs, kills, and occasional nudity (sorry ladies, not of the leprechaun) they expect. It won’t change your life or give you anything close to a nightmare, but for 90 minutes (particularly if found on a bargain triple pack) it will make your Irish eyes smile.