Monday, July 30, 2012

Ghosthunters Never Learn

In perfect honesty, I didn’t really want to like Grave Encounters. These last few years have shown me more found footage haunted horror than I was ever hoping to see, a fact that I worry sometimes puts me in such a pessimistic place when watching genuinely good independent films (Skew and The Feed among them). But since so many people with respectable opinions had been recommending The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters and the siren of Instant Watch began to sing, it was time to drink that half full glass and try it out.

Quick Plot: A talking head interview has a reality TV producer (of such fare as Tornado Chasers) setting up the footage we are about to see. According to him, some years before the advent of Ghost Hunters, Lance Preston and his team had been working on a reality show called "Grave Encounters." Upon their sixth episode set in the vacant Collingwood Mental Institution, bad things happened…all of which was caught on video for our hungry eyes to see.

We switch point of views to that of the production team’s cameras. Wielding the equipment is cameraman T.C. (a very natural Merwin Mondesir), "occult specialist" Sasha, tech guy Matt, and faux medium Houston. Leading the team is Lance, the typical tool you’d find on these kinds of shows. Always camera-ready, Sean Rogerson’s Lance captures the perfect essence of a reality show host: well-spoken, falsely earnest, and at his heart, a true hack.

The first twenty minutes or so of Grave Encounters is spent exploring the quite creepy abandoned asylum, with town historians and caretakers providing its dark backstory. Like its predecessor Session 9, the film is able to generate plenty of eeriness from peeling paint and overturned gurneys. Thankfully, it also has a sense of humor.

See, despite some method acting and great camera angles, “Grave Encounters” (the show within the movie Grave Encounters) ain’t exactly real. Just as the intense preparation for a night in the asylum is ramping up to eye-rolling levels of earnestness, Lance & Co. reveal that deep down, most of the scares they capture are manufactured. Observe a very funny interview with a quiet new-on-the-job gardener who after a second take and $20 bill, can tell you ALL about the haunting of Collingwood based on, um, his ten-year career there.

Of course, once the sun sets and the doors are locked, “Grave Encounters” the TV show gets exactly what is always wanted: genuine ghosts.

I won’t spoil any more of this film, which is a surprisingly great way to spend 90 minutes of your streaming time. As a fairly vocal opponent of found footage horror, I had next to no expectations that I would actually like Grave Encounters. And yet, once doors started to close, furniture started to float and food went rotten, I was 100% on board with following the crew. Yes, some of the more blatant scares feel a tad derivative of other films, but most actually work, especially since each puts our characters through such a terrible limbo-like hell. The film starts out with tongue in cheek; it ends with one on a dirty hospital floor.

High Notes
Lots of credit goes to the whole cast for being both natural in front of the (very close) cameras but still establishing their characters without anything forced. We never learn much about their personal lives, but each member of the team rings true and believable

Low Notes
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: naming characters after famous figures in and behind horror only works when it’s not obvious. Unless there really was a Dr. Arthur FRIEDKEN who performed lobotomies in the ‘60s…

Lessons Learned
With slow motion and music behind it, everything’s creepy

Ghosts generally don’t respond when you ask “Who’s there?”

When camping out in an abandoned mental asylum, consider packing Twinkies

What a refreshingly pleasant surprise Grave Encounters turned out to be. Sure, I could have used a little less shaky night-cam footage, but this is a film that is incredibly well-crafted and paced, with a great unique touch in terms of humor and scares. It’s a definite recommend and makes me anxious to see what The Vicious Brothers do next. Especially if it means changing their name. Because as much as I liked this film, I do not like typing “The Vicious Brothers.”

Yeah, I went there.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Not Your Average Sperm Donor

Based on its premise, I assumed Demon Seed was a kind of “Julie Christie gets raped and impregnated by a supercomputer” sorta flick. Something along the lines of the “there’s a little Native American medicine man growing on my neck!” absurdity of The Manitou

It’s actually really serious.

For someone who genuinely DIGS the kind of movies about, you know, Tony Curtis dancing in wizard garb and petite Native American muscle men shooting lasers, this is a slight disappointment.

Quick Plot: Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) Is putting the finishing touches on Proteus 4, an advanced computer along the lines of Jeopardy!’s Watson. 

Back home, he’s about to move out of his techno paradise from his therapist wife Susan, played with all the typical class and grandeur of Julie Christie. The pair seem to still be in love, but the death of their daughter from leukemia and Alex’s increasing coldness and work obsession have driven a rift that calls for a trial separation.

Relax folks: Demon Seed isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf via The Sims.

Although now that I said that, I would LOVE to see a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Sims? 

Anyway, Susan is left alone to be cared for by the butler software (named Alfred, a cute touch). Before you can gasp some British colloquialism, Proteus 4 manages to infect the home system, locking down the estate and holding the lovely Susan prisoner…

To make computer babies.

Based on a Dean Koontz novel I haven’t read, Demon Seed flirts with some incredibly disturbing concepts. The idea of Susan essentially being raped—even if the actual impregnation is never taken sexually—and forced to bear someone else’s child is truly horrifying. No matter where your politics might fall, I think anyone would agree that what Proteus forces upon Susan—that is, giving birth to a completely new hybrid species--is wrong. It’s a violation of her right not just as a woman, but as a human being in control of her own body.

Unfortunately, Demon Seed doesn’t quite have enough confidence or care in the deeper implications of its premise to be truly interesting or thought-provoking. Sure, we get a groovy death scene involving a big techno-cube-thing and an excess of laser shooting, but most of the deeper questions seem to be skirted in favor of a more emotional, yet somehow emptier ending. It’s a shame, even if part of the end result calls to mind a mating of Chucky with Bicentennial Man. 

My point is, there's a fascinating film inside Demon Seed, one that flirts with ideas about reproductive rights, evolution, and the moral costs of technological advancement. I wish the film stayed on that course.

High Points
Remember that brilliant scene in Wayne’s World 2, where Mike Myers pleads with the camera to replace a bit role player with a better actor? Seeing an actress of Julie Christie’s caliber in the type of genre movie that on paper might seem silly easily elevates the material

Low Points
The aforementioned third act, that seems to lose its philosophical ambitions in favor of easier character-based closure

Lessons Learned
7:40 AM is the optimum time for morning fuel ingestion

Getting knocked up by a supercomputer can best be compared to dropping acid or watching a screensaver on loop

Never trust a computer that can’t remember how you drink your coffee

The Winning Line
“I have not had time to brainwash you, so listen carefully.”
Makes perfect sense to me!

Demon Seed falls in an odd place for me: it’s far better than any computer-impregnates-Julie-Christie movie should be, but it ultimately misses the mark on what could have been something utterly new and thought-provoking. That being said, it remains a curious taste of intellectual ‘70s sci-fi horror, similar in vein to the unique Phase IV. Sadly, the DVD is devoid of extras, a shame since this is clearly a film that merits discussion. Ah well. That’s what comment threads were made for.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hebrew Horror & the Laws of Bear Traps

By minor research (e.g., reading an article in Fangoria), it seems that Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Rabies is the first true horror film made in Israel.

That’s one promising start.

Quick Plot: On a sunny afternoon just off a highway, three sets of friends, lovers, or teammates find their lives intertwined in violent and horrifying ways. We've got:

-Ofer & Tali, a pair of runaway siblings with a pretty obvious Cersi/Jaime Lannister connection and the ill luck to end up in an elusive slasher’s trap

-Adi, Shir, Pini, & Mike, four tennis players in a carful of sexual tension about to meet…

-Yuval & Danny, a bad cop/distracted cop duo

-Lastly is Menasche and Rona, a sweetly happy couple who both work in the woods

To go into too much plot detail could potentially spoil what I found to be one of the most refreshing genre films I’ve seen in some time. As I've said in the past with movies like Deadgirl and Dream Home, the trick with tired subgenres like zombie and slasher in this day and age is to either nail it with a 10 or, far more interestingly, find a way to reinterpret the conventions.

If I had to assign Rabies a specific type, I’d call it a slasher. And yet, that aspect of the film is barely an instigating force in the violence that follows. After the tried and trite image of a man carrying a gagged woman through the woods, Rabies lets its action flow through character choices.

Remember how a few weeks back I waged verbal war against The Darkest Hour for its exceedingly dull and unsympathetic leads? Watching Rabies just reinforces my hatred of that kind of lazy screenwriting. I can’t pronounce of the Israeli names in this film, yet I remember each one because the characters themselves were memorable. Within one quick scene, I was 100% charmed by the romance between Rona and Menasche. The dialogue was playful and cute, with secret little jokes that actual couples have with one another. The actors didn’t have to look like Vogue models: they just had to play off each other warmly. It may seem like I’m harping on this, but I truly am wowed by how well Rabies was able to craft some of (admittedly, not all) its characters into actual people who in any other film, would just be slasher meat.

Also, it’s really FUNNY! Rabies isn’t by any means a comedy, but writer/directors Keshales and Papushado tap into perfectly toned black humor throughout the film. It’s never distracting from some of the scarier or really, sadder moments, but some of the comic beats truly help Rabies sit as an unusual, indefinable, but highly entertaining little feature.

Plus, it has a scene involving a bear trap. As anyone who’s ever seen Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror or  even the I Spit On Your Grave remake knows, a bear trap makes everything 100000% better. It’s a law of physics.

High Points
Broken record alert! Any horror film set during the day, when the cruel sun gives far better light to violence than any artificial camera, automatically gets an A+ in my book

It helps to have excellent writing, but I would also commend the cast for finding the right beats for their characters. Some (mostly the younger men) fade a little bit, but Ania Bukstein’s Adi is a likable and spunky presence, while the older actors Menashe Noy, Efrat Boimold,  and Lior Ashkenazi establish strong, sympathetic characters with just a few spread out scenes

Low Points
This isn’t necessarily the movie’s fault, but be warned about the Netflix DVD: you have to access the English subtitles from the Main Menu, not that fancy li’l subtitle button so conveniently placed on your remote. Also, unlike most foreign releases, the film does not automatically begin with the English text. Blame Palestine. Or something (I don't really understand politics)

Lessons Learned
Getting shot in the stomach is not good...not good

There’s something called self-defense

When you’re dying of blood loss, it’s generally not advised to take a nap

I worry that I’m overselling Rabies as the next wave of horror cinema. By no means is it the scariest, wackiest, or most revolutionary film of all time. Instead, it’s a clever take on a traditional genre made by extremely promising filmmakers and an on-point cast. It’s worth seeing simply because it’s Israel’s first stab (or rather, sledgehammer swing) at the market, but even MORE worth seeing because it’s something truly unique. You’re welcome.

Friday, July 20, 2012

You Know I'm Bad

Hop in!

We're riding over to Rupert Pupkin Speaks for my list of favorite (cough cough) bad movies.  Blogmaster Rupert has been inviting a slew of cinemaniacs over to his virtual crib to share the best of the worst, and I encourage all to browse through his recent archives for a ridiculously unhealthy, yet oh so enjoyable batch of recommendations.

And let's face it: you know you've found the right film loving community when you're not the first, but the SECOND person to mention The Guy From Harlem.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Happens In Vegas Dies In Vegas

When Eli Roth’s Hostel hit cinemas way back in 2006, the horror industry took note in a way that would, in the opinions of many a purist, damn the mainstream for some time. Due to the juggernaut success of the then-fresh Saw series, Hostel’s box office boom cemented the so-called torture porn subgenre as a viable, financially sound investment for theatrical releases.

What followed was mostly uninspired cash-ins like The Collector and Captivity before audiences grew tired of dark lighting and disembowelments. The real shame in all this is that perhaps the subgenre’s best film—Hostel: Part II—was simply made too late. By 2007, everyone from George Romero to New York Magazine were tired of Saw-ish style, and though Roth’s sequel was smart and satirical, critics and ticketbuyers were simply too tired to give it a chance.

Hostel: Part III is the franchise’s first go-around without Roth onboard. In some ways, this particular threequel debuts (to DVD) with a lot of pressure on its bloody shoulders: can this become a profitable series on premise alone? Is there more to say about people paying for the chance to kill other people, and more importantly, will audiences want to listen?

Or should I just get to the face-peeling already…

Quick Plot: Just like that movie everyone talks about that I haven’t seen The Hangover, a group of good(ish) looking late 20somethings are heading to Vegas for token dull dude Scott’s bachelor party. On board is the wealthy best man Carter, handicapped nice guy Justin, and token obnoxious cretin Mike.  

Mike is a gem. Married to a wife he just loves to call fat, with kids who are surely better off by the end of the film for losing their hate-filled daddy, Mike is marked as Victim #1. After a whole lot of false starts, we finally get to see that transformation happen. With a twist.

The smartest thing Hostel: Part III does is play around with its pre-established formula. The earlier films took place in Eastern Europe, a beautiful and, to common American tourists, generally unchartered region where being abducted is hardly out of the question. Moving the action to the recognizable lands of casinos and vice was a risk, but because Michael D. Weiss’ script has a few tricks up its sleeve, the gamble pays off (ba dom bump Vegas pun, amiright?). We recognize the business of Elite Hunting, with a few new Sin City-appropriate touches.

Hostel was a great idea executed with a little too mean execution. Hostel: Part II was a genuinely clever followup where it felt as though Roth was both expanding his universe and fixing what didn’t work about his original (unlikable protagonists, unabashed misogyny, nameless villains). Scott Spiegel’s Hostel: Part III is far lighter in scope and tone, but it’s quite enjoyable as a continuation of the series. Though the characters are a little too forgettable, their plight is filled with surprises, be it false starts, creepy masks, villainous turns, or suffocation by cockroach.

All part of the fun.

High Points
The opening scene is both entertaining on its own and a great blueprint for the rest of the film to follow: as the previous films showed, you really never know who to trust when it comes to secret societies. Throughout Hostel: Part III, that’s a theme that constantly gets put into play

Low Points
I understand that much like the first film, the men on display are supposed to be alpha male wannabe misogynists who lead you to wonder if they get what’s coming to them. That would be fine if all the crass dialogue was restricted to a character like Mike. But why then put such ugly dialogue in everyone’s mouths? The gang sans Mike seems to revel in discovering the prostitutes they paid for live in mobile homes and can thusly be referred to as trailer trash, while a Ukranian prisoner repeatedly screams"f*ggot" while kicking his guard. It leaves an ugly taint on the entire script that makes it hard to say the film isn't, once again, misogynist, racist, sexist, and so on

Lessons Learned
In Vegas, you have to be missing a full week before the cops care to start looking

No matter what your fiancée may say, when his overgrown frat boy friends whisk him away for a weekend of bachelor fun, yes, yes you should indeed be worried

Airbags are great stabilizers for stabbings

Hostel: Part III is not the surprise gem that its predecessor was, but I think I can safely say I enjoyed it far more than the original. The Vegas setting adds necessary refreshment, bringing with it plenty of new quirks in the every-expanding Elite Hunting empire. If the franchise continues to roam the globe in search of new locales, I’ll be happily queuing it up on Instant Watch for years to come. This isn’t really worth a buy or investment of cash, but it’s a well-made straight-to-DVD horror film that has plenty of fun with itself. Give it a spin.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Shin-n-n-ing

For a good chunk of movie audiences, Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining stands as one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments in terror. To its grandfather, it was (at least at the time of its release) blasphemy.

Thusly did we get Mick Garris’ extremely literal 1997 miniseries, written by King and filmed at the very hotel that inspired the tale. To experience all three tellings is a pretty fascinating exercise in the art--and sometimes, fingerpainted afterschool activity--of the adaptation.

It surprises some (okay, my cats) to learn that I haven’t read that much of Stephen King’s canon. I adore his essay work, but each of the handful of King fiction I’ve picked up continue to kill me with final act buzzkill (Salem's Lot is a pleasant buck of that trend). Lately though, I’m becoming more forgiving in my old age of literary criticism. I blew through Carrie with plenty of energy, so following it up with one of King’s most celebrated hits seemed like the best idea since buying Maximum Overdrive on DVD.

More refreshing than a soda can to the groin!
If you’re a horror fan who has never read The Shining, head to your nearest library/local bookstore/airport and give it a go. Though King himself acknowledges that some of his prose is on the messy side, the book moves like a fascinating nightmare. Wendy, Jack and Danny are all written with a firm ear towards character and their tentative hold on a fragile family unit is as devastating as the latter half is scary. Jack’s descent is inevitable, but as King astutely recognizes in his introduction to the book's reprint, Jack isn’t a one-dimensional monster anxiously awaiting his transformation. We care about these people, making every swing of the roque mallet hurt.

But let’s face it: most readers don’t travel 500 plus pages through The Shining for a family drama about the perils of alcoholism. Inside the ghostly holdings of The Overlook lurks some true terror, from an eerily macabre masked ball to the iconic Room 217. Most memorable is Jack’s, Danny’s and Dick Halloran’s meet-ups with the growling lion made of topiary. It’s truly remarkable how effective scenes of evil garden creations can be on the page...

And how damn silly looking they are when brought to life by 1997 era CGI. Kubrick famously omitted the topiary from his film, claiming special effects wouldn’t do it justice. Perhaps that’s true (considering how giggly the 1980s BBC version of The Day of the Triffids made me, I’d say yes). Or maybe, like so much else in his version, Kubrick didn’t think they worked according to his vision.

Can't imagine why...

An adaptation, you see, is just that. It’s an interpretation of preexisting material, not necessarily a direct translation of it. 

One of my biggest pet peeve comments I hear from movie viewers is the whine that “they changed it from the book!”  Why is this offensive? ‘They’ (evil filmmakers with their own ideas) didn’t change YOUR book. They didn’t rape its author and force it to birth this creation or chain him or her in a tower until the writer released a Galileo-like false confession that erased any original ideas. Books and movies exist on two different plains of the universe.

Sometimes, a close-to-the-page film breeds greatness (No Country For Old Men, Atonement) while others fall flat (The Road, Blindness). What I respect most is a film that honors its source material’s essence but understands well enough that the language of film can veer wherever it wants and still be great (i.e., Children of Men or The Sweet Hereafter, fine literary works that bred incredible filmmaking).

Kubrick falls into the latter category. His Shining plays quite a bit with its source material, retaining its skill but filling it with an entirely different substance. Does it work as a film? Certainly. As an adaptation? Yes. It’s just not the translation loyal readers (and one writer) may have been waiting for. 

Jack Nicholson’s Jack is, much to the annoyance of Stephen King, not the Jack on his pages. He starts with a Joker grin and ends with the same Joker grin frozen solid, and while it’s a terrifying character that has rightfully become iconic, it’s ultimately far less complex than the tortured recovering alcoholic of the novel. It’s probably Kubrick’s biggest deviation, and one that builds an immediate distance between the audience and characters. Sure, Shelley Duvall (say nothing negative; woman has a lifetime get out of jail free card for creating Faerie Tale Theatre) as Wendy comes off as a bit of a nag, but that doesn’t mean we ever really understand Jack wanting to plant an axe into her back.

It’s understandable that the casting would irk King, particularly since the author used the character as something of a metaphor for his own struggles with alcohol. For that reason alone, it's clear why the author would take such a strong position (executive producer and screenwriter) on the second stab at adapting his material. The problem, of course, is that he put it in the hands of someone who loved the novel even more than he did.

I have a lot of respect for Mick Garris. The man clearly adores the genre and would sell his kidneys and children to make horror even better.

But that doesn’t mean he’s a good director.

The Stand is a mediocre retelling of King’s epic, with lots of aspects (the ridiculousness of the sultry pill-popping Laura Sangiacomo as a virgin, the casting of Rob Lowe, and much more) that just don’t work. His Masters of Horror episode, Chocolate, has some interesting ideas with painfully awful execution. And Sleepwalkers...well...there have been worse adaptations of King pieces.

And yet, it makes perfect sense that Stephen King would watch him direct his adored text. I obviously don’t know what their working relationship was like, but I imagine conversations went as such:

MG: So Mr. King, I was thinking of cutting that scene where Halloran misses the plane to Denver. It seems a little unnecessary, don’t you think?

SK: No way. It’s important in showing how hard the dude’s trying. Also, I wrote it.

MG: Totally! Forget I ever said a thing. Um, what about the one that comes about ten minutes later, where Halloran lands and the car rental cashier kindly tells him she’ll call ahead to put chains on the vehicle? It kind of cuts into the action over the Overlook and, well, I don’t know that we need it.

SK: Did you hear me the first time?

MG: Of course! I mean, you’re right, 110% right. I guess that means I shouldn’t even ask about that scene later where Sam Raimi has a cameo playing the guy that lends him the snow mobile thing, right? I mean, the people need to see that he gets a snow mobile thing from Sam Raimi. And when Halloran arrives at The Overlook and gets out of the snow mobile thing to brush the snow off the sign that says “The Overlook” even though the audience already knows that, you know, that’s The Overlook, we need that right?

SK: Quiet kid. Just remember Uncle Stevie’s rule.

MG: If it’s on the page, it stays.

SK: Got it. Now print me out a new picture of that Kubrick dude and tape it over that dart board yonder. I got things to do.

As King and Garris discuss in the commentary tracks, the miniseries is indeed the ideal format for a dense novel’s filming. It’s not easy to tell a 500+ page story in two hours of screentime, so the extended running length makes perfect sense.

But what Garris and King don’t realize is that a book is its own thing, one that exists on its own dimension inside the readers’ heads. We bring our own aesthetic to what we read--for whatever reason, I cast Elizabeth Mitchell and Kyle Chandler as the Torrances and resurrected Scatman Crothers from the grave to revisit Halloran--and so a literal word by word adaptation will almost always fall flat. Watching a bizzarely dreadful Melvin Van Peebles discuss his travel plans does absolutely nothing for the narrative. Just because it’s in the book does not, in ANY way require it to be filmed.

Likewise, a film can use its facilities to enhance its source material, be it through music, visuals, performances, or random touches. You know, like how Crothers' Halloran decorates his Florida condo:

No reason for it exactly, but it's memorable and interesting, something that makes us wonder a little more about the character. The miniseries never dares to embellish.

There is good inside 1997’s The Shining. Rebecca DeMornay and yes, Steve Wings Weber are quite strong as a couple on the edge, and both the loving and abusive scenes together are believably powerful.

As for the rest of the miniseries...well..the last shot was neat. Of course, before that we deal with Haunted Mansion caliber ghosts and Peebles' terrible line readings, heavy-handed musical cues and laughable CGI, plus a fatal step in miscasting that makes Danny a precocious 8-year-old that doesn’t know how to read. I won’t insult child actor Courtland Meade’s performance, as it’s not awful...just not right. I may have missed the exact moment where his age was discussed (for silly reasons involving me not understanding how to read a double sided disc, I was forced to download Part 2 en espanol and channel my inner 8th grade honors student to understand the dialogue) but either Danny is WAY too well-spoken for a 6 year old (who then graduates two years early in the film’s painful flash forward coda) or an 8-year-old with a learning disability, which doesn’t fit his clearly bright and well-spoken character in the least. Either way, WHAT IS GOING ON?

Also, his hair looks stupid.

Then there’s the time period, or lack thereof. Danny talks like a child of the 90s while The Overlook uses rotary phones and Dick Halloran dresses like Willie Dynamite circa 1971. I’m confused.

Plus now I just want to rewatch Wilie Dynamite.

But enough bashing of a not necessarily terrible way to spend 4.5 hours. It made Stephen King and most likely, those who believe an adaptation should be a book-on-film satisfied. I can’t imagine it entertaining someone who didn’t read the novel, but as an example of (in my opinion) what an adaptation shouldn’t be.

Also, I spotted a goof (Part 3, flowers moving before Wings comes into frame) and I NEVER spot goofs.

Oh, and the miniseries features a Ghost Dad coda that's way more hilarious than Ghost Dad.

Also, did I mention Danny's stupid haircut?

I don’t think Kubrick’s film is perfect, though I do cite it as a brilliant horror film and even more brilliant, if almost unrelated interpretation of a great read. I also don’t think Garris or King were wrong to revisit the material in their own manner. I just wish they remembered what film can do and actually tried to do it.