Monday, April 29, 2013

It's Getting Hot In Here

Apocalyptic thriller streaming on Netflix?


Quick Plot: Somewhere in Europe where people speak in German, the world has experienced a devastating solar storm that has rendered society into a wasteland. Water and fuel are scarce, while the sun now beats down with violently hot burn-inducing rays.

And sadly, there is no leather.

Enter a car of survivors: Marie, a resourceful young woman who resembles Asia Argento's gentler twin, her younger teenage sister Leonie, and Philip, the man who has helped to keep them alive and, we gather, Marie's bed warm. At a scavenged gas station, they adds another member: Tom, a mysterious but useful straggler. Some car trouble and chaotic kidnappings later, the group is separated, with Marie finding suspicious shelter in a farm commune.

When I first started Hell, I was instantly impressed. The film immediately establishes its societal crumble with subtle visuals and implied tone. Though we never get much history from the characters, Hannah Herzsprung conveys a plucky strength that we easily root for in Marie, while her tricky relationship with a bratty kid sis and merely suitable romantic partner lends complicated tension. Early on, Philip points out that Marie needs to put Leonie "under control," a statement with tricky undertones about hierarchy that are later amplified by Marie's family values-minded new group. The screenplay never quite steps up to confront its ideas about gender politics during survival of the fittest, but the hints of discussion are intriguing on their own.

Unfortunately, Hell isn't quite up to the challenge of being a truly deep philosophical analogy, which would okay if the film didn't also hesitate on the action end. Somewhere between the panoramic father/son drama of The Road and coldly detached Time of the Wolf, Hell is the kind of film that's easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. First-time filmmaker Tim Fehlbaum creates an incredibly strong and striking world, but with such a small scope, you expect the human element to matter more. While Herzsprung's Marie has a wonderful presence, her relationship with the bratty Leonie never resonates as deeply as it should (because, you know, the kid’s kind of a brat), while Philip's flaws are too easily brushed over. Between the created world and intriguing characters, there’s plenty of interesting potential that’s just never really tapped.

High Notes
Between the almost sepia suntones and graying vegetation, the apocalyptic environment of Hell truly does look great

Low Notes
You know, the fact that nothing is really going on

Lessons Learned
Birds always know where the water is

Jump starting a car is a lot easier than it sounds

No matter how far into the future you go, no man will ever evolve far enough to not be confounded by the complications of a net

If your prisoner keeps trying to escape, perhaps you should keep someone on watch

Obsessive post-apocalypse compulsives such as myself will certainly get something from Hell. The visual design itself makes it worth a watch, although the actual narrative leaves a whole lot to be desired. Queue it up on Instant Watch if you’re in the mood for some effective end of the world atmosphere and keep an eye out for Fehlbaum’s future (and hopefully more fully realized) efforts.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Two Too Many Hatchets


And ugh ugh.

Wanna hear why so much ugh? Come listen to the latest episode of The Feminine Critique, streaming here or available for free at iTunes. Warming: It might make you a little bit hatchet faced.

Not like that's a bad thing...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Oh, Canada

Martyn Burke’s The Clown Murders is one of those titles that gets tossed around horror movie discussions for two reasons:

-It features a killer dressed like a clown
-It costars a young Canadian named John Candy

Both of these reasons would be valid motivation for seeking out a film. And yet...

Quick Plot: After an extended game of polo, a group of wealthy men with a complicated history (or not? I DON’T KNOW) come up with a dastardly plan for Halloween night. Philip, a work-obsessed lawyer with a bad back, Rosie, a silver spoon-fed jerk with a girl’s name, and Ollie, a John Candy with a sandwich glued to his hands, conspire to dress like circus clowns and help world traveler Charlie kidnap his ex-girlfriend Allison just long enough so she can’t help her entrepreneurial new husband sign some time-sensitive papers at midnight to sell her farm to greedy land developers.

Or maybe that didn’t happen. I mean, what business deal takes place at midnight? And not a minute after? As if there’s a slim window before the harvest moon experiences a lunar eclipse when any signature is rendered obsolete? It doesn’t make sense, you know? And truth be told, characters mumble in this film with less clarity than Liv Tyler in a library, so for all I know, the actual plot involved a chess tournament or creating the perfect recipe for tiramisu.


Assuming that the movie is indeed about the detected plot, it still makes zero logical sense. After the men HILARIOUSLY kidnap Allison and beat up her husband, it doesn’t take more than one newscast to reveal the authorities are, shockingly enough, taking this quite seriously. Rather than go to the police to say “Hey, we played a realllllllly stupid joke and are sorry,” (even though their ‘victim’ is the one who suggests it) the men decide to suspiciously retreat to Allison’s secluded farmhouse and build tension amongst themselves for the rest of the night, occasionally pausing to satisfy monstrous little trick-or-treaters, have super confusing flashbacks in Barbara Walters’ fog filter, or make a fat joke at John Candy’s expense.

Oh, and also, at about 90 minutes into the running time, to elude the level 1 Boy Scout traps of a crazed clown killer whose identity is adorably foreshadowed earlier by a bombastic score and the fact that said suspect is constantly shown cutting the heads off of chickens.

There’s also an Irish leprechaun playing the part of the farmer’s very Irish caretaker.

And did I mention John Candy likes to eat?

Seriously, the last point cannot be ignored. I do not exaggerate when I say that every single line said by or directed at Ollie involves food, be it croissants, doughnuts, peanuts, or a giant ham sub. The only exception? When Ollie sees a light in the distance. That’s not food related at all! Except when Rosie points out that Ollie is probably just spotting a refrigerator door that is opened, and you know what’s inside refrigerators? FOOD THAT FAT OLLIE CAN EAT!

Yup, this is a strange film. And a fairly terrible one, at least based on what dialogue I could make out. Even looking past the film’s lack of technical quality, we’re still stuck with a meandering storyline that spins its rusty wheels until it randomly decides to do something about its horror movie classification. It doesn’t do it well, but at least something actually happens.


High Points
You know, men dressed like clowns is always KIND of creepy, even when the men are stupid and the clowns set traps that Franklin Delano Roosevelt could probably elude

Low Points
Oh goodness. The fact that this is a terrible movie. That’s about it

Lessons Learned
Cars are not picnic tables (though they’ll work in a pinch)

Nothing ruins a party quite like an unexpected  kidnapping

In Canada, cops trust the men they arrest to just seat themselves in the backseat of police cars

John Candy REALLY likes to eat

The Winning Line
“I can’t figure out what’s going on,” says a befuddled police chief upon The Clown Murders’ finale. Was ever a more meta line of dialog spoken? I think not

Gluttons for punishment will find plenty to enjoy in The Clown Murders, be it horrifically unlikable characters in extreme closeup, barely audible dialogue, a plot that a toddler could probably rewrite more sensibly, or a gloriously WTF ending that solves nothing. This is a terrible film, one that seems to wander around dumb character decisions until it gets more bored than its audience and decides, ‘hey, I’ll just be a horror movie! It’s not too late!’ 

It’s not too late, it’s just still bad.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Unicorns & Hats & Masquerades, Oh My!

The Abomindable Dr. Phibes is one of those cult classics that seems to inspire a whole lot of passion from the not necessarily huge component of film lovers who have seen it.

I am now proud to be one of them.

Quick Plot: A Phantom-esque mystery man conducts his own personal house band made up of man-sized wind-up instrumentalists in kooky zip-up masks.

Within the opening two minutes, I have already dubbed this to be The Greatest Movie of All Time.

Some might say I like to leap to big sweeping superlatives when it comes to cinema, but ladies and gentlemen, some are often wrong.

Very. Wrong.

Meet Dr. Anton Phibes, a concert organist/super genius doctor (of something or another) played with magnificence by a fully in-the-moment Vincent Price. Dr. Phibes, we learn, is working on an elaborate (and awesome) plan of vengeance using the fabled ten plagues of the Old Testament as inspiration to murder the team of surgeons and nurses responsible for the death of his beloved wife some years earlier. 

Here's what this means for us:

-We watch a kickass masquerade where a dude dons a giant frog head mask and gets masked to death

-We witness an adorable horde of bats bat a man to death

-A man is stabbed, Cabin In the Woods style, by the unicorn horn of a brass statue catapulted into action

I haven't even mentioned the locust face-eating, outstandingly elaborate hat-wearing, or old timey snake porn-watching. 

Directed by Robert Fuest (he of the wonderfully restrained And Soon the Darkness and amazingly awful The Devil's Rain), 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those fantastically 'alive' films that seems compelled to be something unlike anything you've ever quite seen. From the colorful visual style to the fact that Vincent Price is romantically speaking through a hole in his throat, this is a special movie.

We've got recurring word jokes, bumbling detectives...

creepy dolls that do nothing but appear creepy, 

Vincent Price drinking champagne through a hole in the back of this throat, and a credit sequence set to Somewhere Over the Rainbow that lists its cast in terms of "The Protagonists" and so on. There's both absurdity and heart, and the combination makes for a truly unique cinematic experience.

High Points
Did I mention HATS?



Did I mention that the band, Dr. Phibes' Clockwork Wizards, is the greatest assembly of musicians ever put on a bizarro art deco soundstage dream theater?


Lessons Learned
Even when they're eating someone's face off, bats in closeup are pretty darn adorable

Never put down the brandy

No one holds a grude with quite the same dedication as a super genius concert pianist doctor

I was lucky enough to find a double disc of this and its sequel through the Midnight Movies release at the famed Kim's Video in downtown Manhattan. Now on Instant Watch, this is a truly wonderful watch, the kind of strange genre treat that somehow manages to be funny, scary, sweet, gorgeous, and ridiculous all at the same time. See it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

You're a Virgin Who Can't Babysit

A rock star of the post post-modernist movement in literature, author Robert Coover wrote some pretty nifty short stories for his 1969 anthology Pricksongs and Descants. From a fairy tale told by objects to the rambling un-punctuated fury of Noah's forgotten brother, these are experimental tales that are sometimes tedious, sometimes fascinating, and more often than not, fairly horrifying. The most famous of these stories is probably "The Babysitter," a dark suburban saga that follows a group of loosely connected everyday characters (the titular babysitter, her pre-teen charges, horny boyfriend, hornier clients, and so on) through their repressed fantasies that sprawl over one fateful (or maybe very ordinary) night. The story itself is separated by different third person omniscient perspectives seen from different characters as they lust for a different life.

Though it probably made the biggest splash, I personally found "The Babysitter" to be one of Coover's lesser stories. Once you see what he's doing with points of view, the actual reading becomes rather dull. Sure, the shock of a dead baby or gang rape or bathtub drowning isn't easily brushed away, but since everything is ultimately fantasy, it becomes harder and harder to care as the pages continue to turn. Nevertheless, the thrill of a nubile young lady being leered over by everyone from a middle aged drunk to the town bad boy is easily ripe for a Lifetime-ish film adaption, hence Guy Furland's 1995's take.

Quick Plot: An unnamed (until the end, when the reveal of her rather ordinary name isn't actually that special) babysitter heads to her night job at the Tucker residence, where dad's already three bourbons in and mom needs a hand squeezing herself into a not-so-little black dress for a house party. Meanwhile, The Babysitter's on-the-outs boyfriend (one of the Londons, and I continue my pledge to never be able to tell them apart) bumps into an old pal who's taken a turn for the wrong side of the tracks. Old Pal is played by one of my major late '90s to early 2000s crushes, Nicky Katt, who aside from appearing in virtually every movie made between 1995 and 2002, also struck my heart as a rebellious teacher stranded on the miserable Boston Public. I harp on this casting because aside from riling up some of my younger days, Nicky Katt is also costumed and styled to be the spitting image of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike: leather duster, dangling cigarette, and hair slightly too high on his head. Bleach it blond and the resemblance is downright scary.

I know, I know: it's only 1995. Sarah Michelle Gellar was still winning junior daytime Emmy Awards and Kristy Swanson hadn't even DONNED a pair of ice skates yet. Stay on track Emily!

Anyway, The Babysitter's style of storytelling is as such:

-a character encounters The Babysitter
-a character suddenly acts extremely inappropriately with the underage The Babysitter
-extremely inappropriate action leads to dire consequence

-camera cuts back to reveal extremely inappropriate action with underage The Babysitter was a micro-fantasy

Surprisingly, Furland's film is an extremely faithful adaptation of a 20 or so page story. But that doesn't really make it any fun. Furland (now a veteran of directing for television, including credits for The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy) plays very carefully with his tone, assigning overly aggressive musical scores to blatantly show us what kind of mood the fantasy should generate (sexy saxophone for dad's porn 101 vision, playful piano for his son's naughty PG peeping, etc.). He's also not afraid to surrender to all-out sleaze, at least within the parameters of whatever rating system his film gets. The actual content is about as risque as an episode of Gossip Girl, strange when you add in uncensored use of the F word.

And smoking. LOTS of badass delinquent smoking.

As a child of the '80s and a teenager of the '90s, I have plenty of affectionate nostalgia for this era. Though cinesnobs are often eager to discount the '90s as worthless save for the occasional Pulp Fiction, I think there are plenty of gems to be found, even if they generally, well, don't LOOK good. Take, for example, Michael Tolkin's fantastically challenging moral tale The Rapture, which goes for some of the gutsiest filmmaking I've ever seen, yet visually, never seems to have a speck of ambition. I'm not versed enough in media studies to diagnose the issue, but for whatever reason, '90s films just aren't that, well, pretty.

Despite starring Alicia Silverstone in between her Crush and Clueless years, The Babysitter is also not a pretty movie. Sometimes, this feels smartly intentional, even if it becomes insufferably grotesque. Poor Lee Garlington is saddled with the horrid character of a plump, insecure housewife whose idea of sexy is having her neighbor George Segal pour champagne down the side of her mouth. There's girdle humor/horror, which somehow always feels misogynistic when executed in front of your eyes. Indeed, watching a middle aged suburban mom humiliate herself at an insufferable cocktail party is horrifically uncomfortably, as is seeing a seedy J.T. Walsh leer over an extremely young Silverstone. Aside from Dolly, everyone's fantasy seems to be the same: have sex with Cher. And yes, that includes her 10-or-so-year-old babysitting charge, who sneaks in the sorta R-rated nudity via a girlie magazine.

When I heard that a film had been made based on Coover's story, I assumed it merely lifted the concept of a cute teen babysitter lighting the libidos of every male who came across her path. That IS the case, but Furland should certainly be credited with trying to maintain what made the original tale so memorable in the first place, namely, the multiple points of view. The problem, however, with such a concept on film is that we as an audience can't possibly care about anyone. We're never given enough time with any individual characters to form any sort of connection, although the simple fact that all are horrible people with dull rape fantasies would make that impossible anyway.

High Points
As I mentioned earlier, the blatantly stereotyped use of music does a deceptively good job of mirroring a character's point of view

Low Points
The fact that everyone in this movie is neither interesting nor likable

Lessons Learned
A small ice cream stain on one's dress generally calls for a luxurious bubble bath

People in the suburbs are really turned on by the idea of soaping one's back

In the '90s, cool kids always toasted with lit cigarettes

No woman has ever mastered the art of flipping her hair with more skill than Cher Horrowitz

As both a token of its time and ambitious attempt to adapt a literary experiment, The Babysitter certainly has some merit for those looking for something different. Its somewhat experimental approach will probably surprise anyone looking at the shadowy cover art and reading the premise. Perhaps if this movie was made during a grittier era, the risk would have paid off. Instead, we're left with a rather ugly tale about ugly people.