Thursday, May 31, 2012

MaskMaker In the Woods

So, here’s the thing about MaskMaker

Have you seen Cabin In the Woods?

If you haven’t, then you should probably skip down to the Rent/Bury/Buy section for a summary that doesn’t spoil a seemingly unrelated masterpiece to this decently made but minor slasher. But for the smart ones here who have already seen Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s horror comedy, you’ll understand that it’s hard to view such standard dice up the pretty people fare without thinking about The Ancient Ones.

Quick Plot: A young college couple majoring in economics takes a drive to a secluded old farmhouse for Jennifer's birthday weekend, where the perky coed learns the musty but antique-filled homestead is now hers. Some guys buy flowers, others, engagement rings. Evan, on the other hand, paid $10,000 for some property and put the grant in his lady love's name. Sure, the local hardware store is run by Michael Berryman and the only other customer offers ominous warnings of the house’s backstory, and yes, the remote location offers little to no cell phone coverage (as pointedly remarked upon to silence audience objection before it starts) and oh fine, there’s a dead pig’s head chilling out in the vintage refrigerator with what can only be genetically mutated Panem-bred superflies, but hey, a deal’s a deal!

Despite their misgivings, Jennifer and Evan settle in, inviting two more frisky couples along for a weekend of bonfire guitar strumming, aged wine drinking, and role playing fornication that oddly enough, fits right into the soon-to-be-awakened killer’s MO.

See, amongst the creepy relics Jennifer discovers is a leather-bound diary of the previous tenant, a French maid (not like THAT! except, well, kind of like that) who raised her monstrous son Leonard with witchcraft and a lack of discipline. As Jennifer reads the artistically rendered script---

Fine. I can’t ignore it anymore either. Yes, Cabin In the Woods fans: the MaskMaker of the title could easily have been hanging out inside one of the elevator’s rotating cubes. And yes, among our pretty young people are scholars, whores, fools, virgins (eh, close enough) and athletically built young men whose death and pain would easily sate the appetities of some old hungry demons. 

There’s a harbinger--

And shock of shocks, he’s not actually played by Berryman but Bernie himself!

We’ve got a torture room...


A relic (in this case, a big ol’ magic stick thingy) that resurrects the past

Unmarried sexual encounters...

And in case you were worried about the future of mankind, plenty of death in the order The Ancient Ones require.

Mask Maker has about as much originality as an accountant’s lunch order, but it does what it’s expected to with better skill than most of its contemporaries. Though the idea of the killer is nothing special, Leonard himself looks menacing and quite eerie when wearing his victim’s cleanly extracated faces on his own. Some viewers might find the young cast’s talkiness annoying, but I appreciate the script’s insistence on giving its victims’ some individuality, something helped by the energy of its actors. We don’t necessarily like them, but at least they’re more interesting than the garden variety camp counselor or drunk teens. Director G.E. Furst (he of a few Asylum titles) shows some skill in establishing their chemistry as friends and lovers.

But...but...they’re STILL hard to think of as anything other than than The Whore(s), The Virgin, The Athlete(ishes), The Fool(s) and Scholar. With that in mind, I’d rather attend a party thrown by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.

High Points
You can’t argue with the impressively done gore, complete with drippingly fresh face maks and big ol’ fashioned axings

(MINOR SPOILER) There is a small effort to play a little with the death order. It’s not revolutionary, but one kill did happen far earlier than I expected, making it land quite effecitvely

Low Points
I rarely speak ill of anything involving Treat Williams, but the flashbacks of Leonard’s childhood story are easily the weak link of MaskMaker. Filmed in an undefined gray sheen, they just never evoke anything of the scandal or supernatural I assume they were going for

Not sure who decided it was a good idea to throw in a weirdly homophobic electrician, but I suppose one low point of the film would have to be the weirdly homobophic electrician

Lessons Learned
If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that when a bloodthirsty killer has me straight in his aim of a knife or spear throw, it’s really easy and instinctual to just wait til the last minute to duck or roll over and avoid the death blow

In 2012, male college professors can totally say things like “just like a woman to compare investing to cooking” and get away with it

Some people are into being puked on

Look! It’s...
One of the London Twins (can people really tell them apart?) popping up for the final scene with an adorably strained Louisiana accent. I hope they didn’t spend too much money on that

Credits Curiosity
Ever see a film’s tagline plopped under its title in the opening credits? Me neither. Until now.

For what it is—a direct-to-DVD slice ‘em up about pretty people being hunted by a silent madman—MaskMaker is slightly above average. The acting has spunk, the makeup mostly looks great, and kill count is high and messy enough to not leave you feeling cheated. It does absolutely nothing new in terms of the genre, (even borrowing the basic monster design from Leatherface’s closet and a key plot resolution from Friday the 13th Part 2) but if you’re in the mood for a slick piece of modern American horror, it’s serviceable. Not special, but good enough in an unambitious way for a lazy Instant Watch while you're alphabetizing your DVDs or separating Lucky Charms marshmallows from the boring rice crisps. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Probably Better Than the Geico Cavemen TV Show

To 21st century Western audiences, the first thing we picture when someone shouts the word “Gecko!” (as they do so often) is, I assume, a computer animated auto insurance mascot with an admittedly adorable British accent. Strange to think that just two decades past, these fringe lizards were considered terrifying.

Or not. But in 1997, someone sure decided to make a movie about them on a killing spree!

Quick Plot: Amy is a mysterious pink-haired traveler heading back to her family’s childhood winter cabin. In tow is a pair of goldfish, her loyal cat Frankie, and a bag of hundred dollar bills that surely came from honest hard work. It seems like Amy will be enjoying a quiet, relaxing vacation until rat-like critters start swiping Frankie’s wet food and eating Amy’s cake.

At the general store, Amy grabs some traps and catches the attention of Marshall, a nerdy young biologist doing his own research on some of the animal life in the region. The pair head home to discover the creatures in question are actually some new species of geckos (that sadly don’t speak with British accents) who seem to possess a unique and terriffffyiiiiing  ability to instantly evolve with their surroundings.

Oh yeah, and they killed Frankie.

Now up to this point, Amy (as played by Pamela Gidley) has been likable in a cute-quirky kinda way. Most of her dialogue was one-sided conversations with her beloved feline, so you assume that finding him filleted on her bathroom floor would be traumatizing to our lonely heroine.

Were I to discover Mookie or Joplin’s corpse, there would be, to put it mildly, a Peckinpah-esque reckoning. I woud pop heads from bodies, chew ears off in one bite, sever genitals with my feet, and breathe fire upon whatever bits might be left.

Point is: you do not f*ck with a crazy cat lady’s kids.

Every film has a turning point, and some have turning points built in for their audience. In the case of Aberration, my opinion on this film turned when Amy treated the death of her cat as an excuse to make awful one-liners.

I am sensitive that way.

Also, Aberration isn’t THAT good to begin with. It has a refreshingly different premise and up to a certain point, the actors are likable enough to sell the material, but the film never seems to decide whether it wants to go full-out horror or Evil Dead winky humor. The monsters are adorable cheap puppets that add plenty of charm, but the style doesn’t fully embrace its more ridiculous elements. Once the danger becomes apparent, the dialogue becomes sarcastic but not clever as the characters treat the man-eating gecko thingies more like a minor annoyance than life-threatening enemy. You almost wonder if director Tim Boxell realized while filming that he couldn’t achieve true horror, so he started to switch the tone on the fly.

It doesn’t quite work. Once Marshall (Simon Bosell, whose name rhymes with the director’s and causes me to suspect shenanigans) takes center stage, the film seems to want to harness some sort of heroic nerd power theme. But Bosell doesn’t quite seem up to the task of channeling Bruce Campbell. By this point, we’ve already seen the cute ugly gecko puppet thingies played off as less threatening than the third act Russian mobster (trust me), so to treat the monsters as truly dangerous just doesn’t work. And all Amy can do is moan about being cold and not, you know, ABOUT HOW THEY KILLED HER CAT.

Maybe I’m just biased on this one.

High Points
Geckos! Puppet geckos! I don’t care how silly they may be: they’re something new. And slightly cute.

Although the cut between human actor and prothetic puppetry is quite obvious, it still must be said that the gore of the extremely low budget Aberration is actually quite groovy

Low Points
Overall, the messy tone of the film. It's almost charming, but also, you know, not that good. It's nice to see actors try to embrace their inner goof, but when it doesn't work, it just comes off as annoying

Lessons Learned
If planning on stealing money from you dangerous thug boyfriend, try to avoid hiding in the very place you used to spend hours telling him about

Geckos don’t have teeth!

Nobody robs from Yuri

Awkward Line That Makes You Realize Your CCL Level
“No, you can’t get in the bath with me,” quotes the woman to her cat. At least I’m not the only one who’s had to say that…to her cat

Aberration isn’t readily available, but those with Netflix Instant Watch can catch it in its fuzzy glory. The film isn’t necessarily worth a big time investment, but at a brisk 90 minutes, it’s not the worst background filler to have on while playing laser pointer with your cat. I can’t see myself having any desire to revisit Aberration, but it was a breezy time waster and heck: I’ve seen worse. Then again, it probably won’t save you money on your car insurance so really, what’s the point?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hear Ye, Hear Me

Hey nerds: give it a rest already. Take a break from that geekery you call reading for a change and listen up: I've got some audio kimchi to give your ears the exact kick of fiber they've been craving.

Over at Episode 65 of Podcast Without Honor and Humanity, I stopped by the virtual lair of the one and only Jake McLargeHuge (yes, best name ever) to discuss a pair of Asian treats. Up first is the 2004 Korean film Doll Master, a somewhat adorable attempt at my favorite horror subgenre by a filmmaker who seemed to have no actual idea of what a horror movie is supposed to do.

And for those who prefer yakuza murder to dolliciide,  crime bosses to puppet masters, rape to glass eye poking out, there's our second feature: 1972's Kinji "Battle Royale" Fukasaku's Outlaw Killers: Three Mad Dog Brothers.

Go get it!

Also in the news: I've been invited to a tea party!

Well, not quite like that. I get to keep my arm and sanity. I think. I hope. 

I don't really know.

Point is, I'm now a member of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, a ridiculously fine collection of horror bloggers. It's an honor, and I can only hope my wild coffee inhaling ways don't put me to shame.

Now go weekend yourself. If that's a thing. It is a thing...right?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Darkest Hour (& a half that I've watched in quite some time)


For a movie fan, few things hurt quite so much as a strong young director following up something great with something awful. Thusly do we get Chris Gorak’s blander than a low sodium rice cake dud The Darkest Hour after his positively brilliant Twilight Zone episode of a film Right At Your Door.

I am sad.

Quick Plot: Two boring-to-awful young software developers are flying to Moscow to pitch their new social networking website. One is played by Anthony Mingella’s son with the personality of mayonnaise. The other is played by the usually charming, here just irksome Emile Hirsch.

I do not know or care what their names are.

Okay, fine. You might think I’m being overly harsh on a film that’s just begun, but this, THIS is the opening scene:

Two American dudes are on an airplane. The pilot announces they’re approaching landing mode, prompting the flight attendant to kindly ask Emile Hirsch to turn off his mobile device. Rather than, you know, TURNING OFF HIS MOBILE DEVICE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, Emile Hirsch launches into a smarmy, poorly written (by Prometheus scribe Jon Spaihts, I say with shivers) monologue that I assume is supposed to be charming about how that’s actually a myth and like, have you ever TESTED that theory?

This man is supposed to be our hero.

I reach for the barf bag.

Once in Moscow, our duo learns that their Swedish partner has hijacked their idea and already sold it. Naturally, two ugly Americans mourn by heading to a hip Russian club where everyone is incredibly attractive, including a fellow American girl (Brunette) and Aussie (Blonde, and yes, that will be their names for the rest of this review because I DON’T CARE). They’re making painfully dull smalltalk when suddenly, orbs of light start falling from the sky and dissolving any living thing that comes into their zone.

It’s an alien invasion! I use the exclamation point because finally, something happens onscreen that makes me actually want to look up from my burrito to my TV screen. The design of the alien attack is actually quite original: rather than big tentacled creatures, the monsters in this case travel via wavelengths. They’re mostly invisible to the human eye, appearing as spots of light that will trigger electricity nearby. So that’s neat.

If only I cared about a single character the aliens were attacking. Our quartet plus the nasty Swede hide out in the club’s cellar as a time stamp—no, seriously—tells us they stay there for “Monday” and “Tuesday.” THAT is the kind of movie this is: one so inept in its script that it can’t express the passage of a small amount of time without blatantly spelling out WHAT DAYS HAVE JUST PASSED.

Anyway, our boring white people emerge from the cellar to travel the barren streets of Moscow, perhaps the one other glint of neatness in the drudge of an 89 minute film. Seeing the Kremlin all but empty IS cool, don’t get me wrong. But seeing that the only people inhabiting it are like coffee break stand-ins for Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network is just sad.

At a certain point, our “heroes” meet a band of Russian badasses who are actively fighting the alien light thingies. These dudes ride horses clad in Tupperware, shoot machine guns with proud Russian bullets, and carry a wonderful sense of personality so direly lacking in our main characters. Why oh why couldn’t The Darkest Hour be about THEM?

Chris Gorak’s previous film was a smart and effective indie called Right At Your Door, wherein a stay-at-home husband had to decide whether or not to let his wife inside during a nuclear attack after she had already been exposed to deadly fallout. It was challenging and scary, filled with wonderfully rich characters and a brilliantly drawn sense of doom done with little budget. The Darkest Hour, in contrast, is a big, ugly, and worst of all, BORING retread through alien invasion. The film was released in 3D and ouch does that hurt its appearance on DVD. While I do think the concept of the monsters is quite different, the execution comes off flat. When we finally see the creatures, we might as well be watching test effects reels from the ABC miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Langoliers.

Except we’re not, because for all its faults, at least The Langoliers had diverse characters. Towards the end of The Darkest Hour, one character starts screaming for Natalie, Natalie, we can’t leave with Natalie! My notes:

“Who’s Natalie?”

She’s the Brunette. The Brunette who I know nothing about, nor do I care to learn. I don’t expect rich Tolstoy-esque writing from a sci-fi action thriller, but that doesn’t mean you can just give mildly attractive 20somethings directions to run, look scared, and occasionally cry and I’m supposed to care an ounce whether they survive or not, especially when they’re essentially asking other, more likable characters to put their OWN lives at risk in order to do so. Who IS Natalie? There’s some mention about an ex-boyfriend and her being valedictorian. The Blonde has an Aussie accent. Emile Hirsch sassed a flight attendant. Anthony Mingella’s son…exists.

I count myself amongst the fairly vocal contingent that thought Cloverfield was a groovy exercise hampered by dreadfully unsympathetic characters. Well folks, I take that back: compared to The Darkest Hour, the cast of Cloverfield deserve to win every Oscar and Nobel Prize known to man.

High Points
It’s mildly surprising when a few of our leads meet the Invisible Smoke Monster of Dissolving Doom. Of course, it’d be more effective IF WE ACTUALLY CARED

Low Points
Aside from pretty much everything, how about the fact that we’re never really given any chance to consider the millions of Muscovites who were wiped out in the initial attack? Our barely legal leads carry no weight with them (which is bad enough) but considering this film had access to some truly amazing parts of one of the most interesting cities in the world, you’d think they could establish SOMETHING worth noticing, like an abandoned ferris wheel at Gorky Park or a grand theater just emptied of its ticketholders. There’s never the single slightest sense that a genocide has taken place, meaning not only do we already NOT care about the survivors, but we have no real context as to who they even outlived

Lessons Learned
Young people make rash decisions

Always carry a Sharpee when traveling

Hey screenwriters, here’s a lesson: if you want the audience to immediately hate your hero, have your opening scene involve him harassing a perfectly nice flight attendant just trying to do her job. Guaranteed way to get us off his side

I was enthusiastically looking forward to The Darkest Hour and even felt slightly bummed to have missed its brief theatrical run. I LOVED Gorak’s last film, and since I spent 9 months in Moscow a few years back as an ESL teacher, the chance to see the city onscreen in one of my favorite genres was incredibly exciting. All this makes the utter dullness of The Darkest Hour positively tragic. This is a boring, uninspired, and poorly constructed film. Hardcore sci-fi nerds might appreciate the new spin on the alien forms, but that’s the extent of my recommendation. Towards the end of the film, our leads reach a boat and suddenly I started thinking to myself “Hey! I wonder if Haunted Boat is still on Instant Watch.” Now kids, Haunted Boat was without a doubt one of the absolute WORST films I’ve ever watched for this here blog, and yet I would have traded my full stash of Tootsie Rolls won in a piñata raid to switch endings just so I could at least enjoy some aspect onscreen. It might seem like I’m being overly hard on The Darkest Hour, considering I’ve given a pass to such hated works as the Nightmare On Elm Street reboo—er, remake and… But truthfully, this movie made me sad and angry. That’s a dangerous combination.