Sunday, August 25, 2013

Birthday, Baby Bugg…Birthday!

Though I typically avoid all things ventriloquism due to the art form’s innate sense of PURE EVIL, it felt fitting to bestow some upon my blogging brother in arms, Zach T.L. Bugg Kelly. You see kids, this month marks the five year anniversary of The Lightning Bugg’s Lair, one of the Internet’s most splendifically splendiferous sources for genre movie writing.

And that same Internet tells me one celebrates a five year anniversary with wood.
Zach is not only a great writer, but also, a true friend. I can assure the world that no man rocks a smoking jacket quite like this southern gentleman, and rarely is there a better movie swapper than the same South Carolina stud. Hence the return of the Deadly DollBugg’s Lair Crossover!, wherein Zach and I assign each other a film to watch and review. This being a celebration, I of course had to dig into Netflix Instant’s top shelf output for what I would deem the very best:

Tony Curtis dressed like a wizard, a muscular little person Native American born through a neck tumor , AND lasers?

All I got for my fifth birthday was a lot of Care Bear stuff.

On my end, Zach also went benevolent with Mario Bava’s 1966 ghost story, Kill, Baby…Kill! Overly punctuated title aside, it’s a good one.

Quick Plot: In the early 20th century, an Italian village is cursed by the vengeful spirit of a bitter 8-year-old girl who died during a drunken town festival. The spooked locals know that anyone who catches a glance of the eerily blond Melissa Graps will inevitably meet their own bloody end, though visiting out-of-town coroner Paul Eswai brings the typical man-of-science doubts. As bodies begin to pile up, Paul and the lovely Monica Schuftan—a long-lost daughter of the area who’s returned at exactly the wrong time—must defeat or escape the evil haunting.

As stories go, Kill, Baby…Kill! is quite straightforward. There are a few mysteries thrown around the narrative (Monica’s secret past, Mama Graps ambiguous place in the mechanics of the haunting) but very simply, this is the tale of a ghost. A creeeeeeeeepy girl ghost who giggles incessantly, throws her ball around like she’s auditioning for The Changeling kickball team, and telepathically convinces otherwise normal (if extremely anxious) townies to stab themselves or impale their bodies upon strategically placed spiked fences. Throw in a few dizzying spiral staircases and a whole lot of very thick spider webs and you’ve essentially got the perfect ghost story for a dark stormy night.

A film like this requires the proper design and atmosphere, and Bava nails it with his camera. From winding overhead shots of carefully colored stairs to the slow suicidal terror that manifests in an ill-fated tavern girl’s wide eyes, Kill, Baby…Kill! is clearly devoted to being a good old fashioned scary story.

And it succeeds.

High Points
Considering so much of Italian horror can stumble when it comes to handling female characters, it’s incredibly refreshing to see how Bava portrays his women. They’re both the chief instigators of the horror AND the only ones fully equipped to fight it. There’s also some intriguing subtext to how Paul, your typical leading man, can’t seem to quite comprehend some of the power inherent in the good and evil woman around him, and it’s the men in authority that seem to pay the highest price

Also, dolls. Lots of freaky ass dolls

Low Points
There’s a rather glaring plot/character hole regarding the character of Monica, primarily in how the town’s burgomaster assigns her to assist in an autopsy despite her secret past (that only HE knows of) rendering such a move quite dangerous to all concerned

Lessons Learned
Touching the dead is against nature. Also, kind of icky

Poverty and ignorance + superstition = something sorta like the devil 

The best way to expel an evil ghost child is to beat yourself a little with a birch branch, Russian banya style

Kill, Baby…Kill! is streaming on Instant, and at just under 90 minutes, it’s the perfect answer to a quiet night at home. The film has some flaws (dubbing that nibbles at the tone, an oddly paced ending that mishandles its tension) but overall, it’s an outstanding exercise in atmosphere, from the period setting to the grandly conspicuous instrumental score. It may be the Lightning Bugg’s Lair’s birthday, but this was a true gift.

I mean, it didn’t have LASERS, but still…

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Can Come Out and Play?

1976’s Who Can Kill a Child? was one of the most surprisingly terrifying film experiences I’ve had in recent years. Slow-building and filmed in sunshine, it packed supremely horrifying punches with no mercy and an intriguing audio style that sometimes went silent to highlight the austerity of its scares. Were I a genre filmmaker, I would most certainly head to that well for inspiration and guidance in making an effective horror movie.

Or maybe I’d just copy it.

Quick Plot: See: original review.

Because you see, save for the original’s depressing documentary-like prologue, this is the same. Exact. Movie.

Directed, edited, and cinematographed (director of photographed?) by masked man of mystery Makinov, Come Out and Play is certainly a well-made film. The Mexican setting is gorgeous, and Makinov shows strong skill behind the camera with some stylish (but not distractingly so) shots. Actors Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Vinessa Shaw (yes, she of Ladybugs and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes) hold our attentions without issue. The score is effectively subtle. 

This is a good modern horror film.

Except, you know, it’s also just a 2012 version of Who Can Kill a Child?, which was an outstanding horror film. 

I’m not one of those horror fans who breaks out into hives and rants when the word ‘remake’ is spoken aloud. There are a lot reasons to revisit old cinematic material, and plenty of examples of when such a retread can produce something worthwhile. Generally, though, ‘revisiting old cinematic material just to use a 21st century lens’ isn’t one of them.

Not quite shot for shot, but certainly scene for scene, Come Out and Play brings absolutely nothing new to its source material. It also doesn’t help to fix any of the minor issues of the original, following every beat even when it could have improved (i.e., giving no real backstory to why a couple with two children would be on a luxury vacation when the missus is two months away from delivering her third). If I want to start getting catty, I’ll add that our lead characters lost my sympathy just as the third act got underway when they left a very helpful islander to her presumed death at the tiny hands of monster children (if this happened in the original, it didn’t feel quite as unpleasant or white privileged). Makinov does raise the gore quotient with a brief and disturbing montage of the children playing with spare adult parts, but it’s not really enough to justify this as its own film. Come Out and Play is a good movie, and a well-made horror film, but when there’s a slightly more disturbing blueprint on my DVD shelf, I fail to see the point.

High Points
Look, I can’t argue with the filmmaking: it looks great, sounds great, and certainly shows that Makinov can make a decent horror movie

Low Points just would’ve been nice if I hadn’t already seen this more-than-decent horror movie

Considering it pretty much takes everything from Who Can Kill a Child?, it’s baffling to wonder why it would forego the awesomely terrifying human pinata that the original film used to such shocking effect

I don’t know about you, but after reading this article about Makinov’s eccentricity, I kind of want to hate everything he has ever touched while obnoxiously wearing a mask

Lessons Learned
Just because a herd of violent children are chasing you down doesn’t mean you should grab the spare handgun laying on hand, right?

I said it before, and I see no reason to not say it again: taking a motorized boat low on gas to an isolated island in very hot weather with your very pregnant wife is in no way the smartest idea you’ve ever had, I hope

Eh, anything else I learned was taught by Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s original

Let me tell you a scary story kids, one that might very well be the worst fear of any Netflix subscriber. The day I received Come Out and Play in the mail, I happened to log into my account to see that usually welcome blue ‘play’ button next to its name. That’s right: the DVD I queued was now on Instant Watch. 

KILL ME NOW, amiright?

Thankfully, the DVD includes a charming making-of that shows the rascally child actors learning about squibs. No, that doesn’t make up for the fact that I GOT THE DVD OF A MOVIE ON INSTANT WATCH, but there are bigger issues in the world that should make me angry (like the fact that Playtex discontinued my favorite bra; this world is very hard on me).

Anyway, as for the movie, it’s certainly well-made and attractively filmed. At the same time, the original Who Can Kill a Child? is, at least to me, one of the scariest films of all time. To just copy every scene doesn’t necessarily translate that fear. It’s a tricky thing to recommend: I’d much rather tell anybody to see the first film (so really, just go see the first film). If you’ve already seen Ibanez’s telling, this VERY close remake will just feel like a prettier carbon copy. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Bedbugs Aren't the Only Things Biting

Quick Plot: Cesar is works as the concierge at an expensive apartment building in Barcelona. While his days consist of opening doors and feeding the stomach-sensitive dogs of his tenants, his nights are little more sinister.

Cesar, you see, cannot be happy. Whereas some men would try therapy or overload on sugar, Cesar's solution to his intensely ambivalent life is to find whatever pleasure he can in the unhappiness of others. Especially if he's the one who causes it.

Enter Clara, a pretty and bubbly young tenant who exits the building every day with a smile and warm thank you. She's the kind of woman you're glad  to have as a neighbor, a genuinely nice soul with as sunny a disposition as you can find.

Naturally, Cesar plots to tear it all away.

What follows is a progressively sick little game of sadism. Every night, Cesar sneaks into Clara's bedroom and dopes her with chloroform, enjoying how she groggily wakes up later and later the following morning. He clogs her sink, planting a beloved family heirloom there just so he can rust it up with Drano. He sends anonymous love letters and text messages with a creepy, ominous slant and creates a fully armed cockroach invasion without batting an eye.

Cesar is a bad man.

And yet, we see everything through his point of view, meaning that as much as we want him to get caught, we're also hesitant since doing so would end the movie and our camera view. 

Written by Alberto Marini and directed by Jaume Balaguero (one half of REC and REC 2), Sleep Tight is a film that doesn't play nice. Cesar is a cruel man, one who enjoys tormenting the innocent Clara while also verbally unraveling a nice, lonely older woman who made the mistake of thinking he was her friend. A scene where he quietly tells that tenant that her life is empty, never raising his voice to do so, provides some of the most unsettling minutes I've ever spent with a film.

He's a monster, plain and true. But as he makes his midnight calls to a radio show on the roof of his building, flirting every evening with the possibility of suicide, it's clear to us that the only cure for Cesar's chronic misery is indeed making others feel the same way. It's sick and sad, especially since his target is a truly good person. But perhaps that's what makes the movie such an effective little slice of cruel.

High Points
A featurette on the DVD includes an interview where the screenwriter discusses some of the revision process, including the fact that several subplots were cut before filming. Excellent decision. Because Sleep Tight is seen entirely from Cesar's eyes, the film moves with incredibly tense momentum. It also prevents Cesar from becoming a typical villain, since we rely so much on his perspective to follow the story. Had the script bounced around with minor characters, Cesar might have been reduced to a simpler monster and not the fascinating character he ultimately is

Speaking of, as Cesar, Luis Tosar nails it

Low Points
Credit to the film for its ending, but OUCH

Lessons Learned
Nanny cams aren't just for nannies you know

Never pair a potato pancake with a French bulldog

Kids today are getting very crafty about their blackmail demands

I won't be eager to revisit Sleep Tight anytime soon, but some years down the line, I look forward to seeing how it plays upon repeat viewing. It's disturbing on a very unique level, sort of like a lighter version of Michael Haneke's Cache or a calmer version of The Vanishing. Except maybe not at all. Point is, Sleep Tight is well worth a watch, as is the making-of feature included on the DVD. Quiet horror at its best.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Skinny Dipping Is Easy When Water TEARS YOUR SKIN OFF

Barry Levinson, the man who brought us Diner, Tin Men, Good Morning Vietnam and Dustin Hoffman's very good driving, is not the guy you first think of when the words ‘found footage horror’ are spoken. In 2012(ish)’s The Bay, however, the Maryland proud filmmaker visited the slums of low budget horror to show kids today how it’s done.

Quick Plot: In the seaside town of Claridge, Maryland, the locals and tourists are preparing for the annual July 4th extravaganza. Dunking booths, swimming pools, fireworks and  crab-eating contests are primed and ready until a few participants start to feel queasy, possibly because their bodies are about to sprout prominent boils of biblical proportions. A communications major on reporter duty tries to grab some camera coverage.

A lone doctor struggles to treat an increasingly crowded waiting room. 

The CDC can barely pretend to know what might possibly be going on. 

All the while, everyone from the beat cops in over their heads to a teenager with a great phone battery hang on tight in the hopes of survival.

The Bay is carefully structured as the film project of Donna, a college student who was doing fluffy reporter work the day of the event. We’re told, as she speaks to her laptop camera, that it’s now been two years since the fateful holiday weekend. The government had successfully buried any news, save for reports that fish and birds seemed to be dying en mass that day for vaguely explained biological reasons. With a wikileaks-like site and a lot of abandoned security camera and phone footage, Donna has now pieced together a truthful narrative of the July 4th tragedy of Chesapeake Bay.

Working with a script from first-timer Michael Wallach, Levinson joins the ranks of directors proving my early annoyance with found footage to be poorly, well, founded. It’s not surprising that The Bay is a good film—you’d expect that from an A-list Oscar nominated filmmaker—but it’s shocking how frightening a film I found it to be. Over three decades of watching horror movies has numbed me to the typical jump scare, but there were two—count ‘em! TWO—instances where I audibly gasped in fear.

Whether it was the release of big budget expectations or the issue of eco-horror, Barry Levinson seems to be having a ball letting The Bay unroll. The cast is composed of unknowns (although Cabin In the Woods’ Kristen Connolly did make me spend a good deal of tilted head time trying to place her before succumbing to the cheat of IMDB) but all manage to play ‘natural’ believably enough. From Facetime video to security cameras, The Bay never sticks to one style for too long. This is less short attention span-based than the natural progression for the story, which is being pieced together by Donna from a variety of media sources. One scene is entirely audio, and it is simply terrifying.

My point is, The Bay freaked me out. We horror fans know, that's a good thing.

High Points
I always give a hand to any found footage movie that manages to make what could (and often is) a style gimmick into an organic method of storytelling 

Low Points
It’s not nearly as overbearing as the majority of modern horror films, but it’s still unnecessary to have several key scare scenes scored by heavy music when the material can work on its own

Lessons Learned
It’s every girl’s dream to be Miss Crustacean 

Fish don’t bite fish (unless they’re infected by icky mutated parasites) 

Don’t touch or drink water or drink or touch anything that’s ever touched or drank water. Ever


Now streaming on Netflix, The Bay is 90 minutes well worth your time. Sure, there might be some heavy anti-factory farming propaganda not so subtly buried under the chills, but fearing the source of your water--you know, THE STUFF YOU DRINK AND BATHE IN EVERY DAY--is so universal that the very concept should at least give you pause.