Thursday, January 30, 2014

Best of the Year: Part 5!

Five years everybody. Five. Years.

That’s right: this blog has now officially been online one full calendar roll longer than John Adams OR John Q. Adams lasted in the oval office (and what? 360 times as long as that weakling William Henry Harrison?). How do we celebrate? The same way we always do, with a roundup of the best films reviewed over the past year:

Far from a masterpiece (or even conventionally good movie), this mostly British anthology earns its spot here for simply being a grab bag of kicks. The framing narrative is so-bad-it's-good in a nonsensical '80s way, while the individual stories are surprisingly eerie and decently paced. No, this isn't a lost classic, but it's an anthology with a great marionette segment. That's enough for #15!

Greatly flawed, and yet great fun. Based on his own novel, Ray Bradbury's screenplay drips atmosphere and poetry, especially when its lyrical dialogue is delivered by pros like Jason Robards and the strangely sexy Jonathan Pryce. Much of the plot is a mess and the ending feels like something of a cheat, but this 'not for kids kids' movie' remains something hauntingly special.

13. Bones

Ernest R. Demon Knight Dickerson is no stranger to making horror comedy entertainment, and 2001's poorly remembered Bones fits well in his canon. There's an inconsistent tone, lead 'performance' by Snoop Dog, and special effects that have aged about as well as cheese left on the counter, but also, Pam Grier, maggots, and a rather affectionate homage to blacksploitation. Far more fun than you'd expect.

First time writer/director Eric Hurt demonstrates refreshing maturity with this little horror indie starring a wonderful Art LaFleur and solid Marc Beastmaster Singer. Two families looking for a real estate bargain investigate a secluded country home only to discover they can't leave. The story isn't necessarily breaking new territory in the current horror landscape, but the execution is pitch perfect.

Probably the last film I expected to be on a 'best of' list, Michael J. Bassett's sequel was shockingly entertaining. Between the inventive visuals, grounded story, double dose of Stark men, and naughty cameo by a certain British fave, this film simply sucked me in from beginning to end.

Less a traditional horror film than a sort of eerie drama, this slow little tale managed to be riveting in the most unusual of ways. Plus, it has Cloris Leachman being Cloris Leachman. Automatic awesome.

The Soska Sisters find the perfect muse in Katharine Isabelle as a detached medical student who finds a new calling in the fascinating world of body modification. Sure, the pacing feels a little confused and the ending rather rushed, but that doesn’t take away from the Soska Sisters’ great use of sound and Isabelle’s incredible turn as a genuinely unique character.

Somehow this early reality TV themed little indie managed to stay under the radar despite the presence of a certain A-list actor named Bradley Cooper. Made on a tiny budget, My Little Eye isn’t necessarily the most original take on a Real World-inspired slasher, but all of filmmaker’s Marc Evans. Resources were so carefully utilized to make it something surprisingly dark.

Recommended to me via blogging pal T.L. Bugg of The Lightning Bug's Lair, this early Mario Bava  haunted house yarn is a rich piece of ‘60s genre cinema dripping with color and eerie atmosphere. Best of all, it takes a wonderfully progressive view of its female characters, letting them be heroes and villains because of rather than in spite of their gender.

I was underwhelmed by Marcus Dunstan’s Saw-inspired The Collector, making his grand followup such a shockingly fun treat. Sure, any film that opens with an entire club of ravers being sliced up in one Rube Goldberg swoop will entertain, but Dunstan truly goes for it, covering every inch of his setting with ridiculous trap and HBO character actor after another. The movie is gross, quick, and most pleasingly, really, really funny.

5. The Bay

The last thing you'd expect from A(ish)-list director Barry Levinson would be a gooey found footage horror film about flesh-eating fish, even if said gooey found footage horror film about flesh-eating fish is set in Baltimore. It's been a while since a movie (especially one made this side of the millennium) made me jump, and even longer since one made me jump more than once. The Bay might still not appeal to those who have sworn off shaky cam and surveillance footage, but man oh man did I have a pleasantly icky time watching. 

Repeat after me: theatrical horror does not have to suck. James DeMonaco's sleeper hit starts with a superbly promising premise and uses its sleek running time to let it unravel without mercy. Sure, the story could have yielded much more ambition, but that's what sequels are for!

Yes, I’m terrified of anything ventriloquist-related, thus easily rendering this 1945 anthology prime meat for a list like this. But even if you close your eyes and stick as many socks in your ears to block out the satanic voice of an evil wooden dummy for the closing segment, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy in this early gem.

One half of the team behind RECJaume Balaguero crafted a truly haunting tale of a sociopathic doorman obsessed with destroying the life of a cheerful tenant. It's a painfully disturbing tale, due in a large part by the outstanding performances of Marta Etura of Luis Tosar. 

If I've been a little slow in my movements, it's because I'm still a tad sore from the 31 lashes I've instituted upon myself to represent every year of my life that I went without seeing Robert Fuest's 1971 cult classic. Holy BATMAN did I love this strange little film, a tale of vengeance filled with unicorn impaling, adorable bats, incredible hats, and Vincent Price speaking through a hole in his throat. 

Thus do we close out 2013 (and then some). We'll be hemming our pants on Saturday as we enter February's annual Shorteneing, so get ready for the usual round of little terrors and come back soon.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lessons Learned, 5 Years a Champ!

Here at the Doll's House, we have something of a tradition during the drudges of January. Upon the almost-anniversary (5 years strong as of January 29th), I take a full-year inventory of all the lessons learned from the sometimes glorious, sometimes, you know, special in other ways films watched here and boil them down to the one most important kernel of knowledge from each.

So break out your notebook and a sharpened pencil. It's time to learn!

Around the Home
Cheap razors are not the ideal tool for shaving off supernatural clown makeup—Scary Or Die

Being female gives one a genetic aptitude towards cooking and cleaning—Link

A small ice cream stain on one's dress generally calls for a luxurious bubble bath—The Babysitter

Basic Survival
The trick to surviving a Good Friday black mass is to shove a Eucharist down the chanters’ throats with all the fervor of Kristy Swanson at the finale of Flowers In the Attic—Little Witches 

After shooting and *maybe hitting an insane killer responsible for the deaths of at least two much larger men, the best course of action to immediately take after the body disappears is to throw your still-loaded gun on the floor. OBVIOUSLY—Deadly Blessing 

In case of apocalypse, be sure to wear layers--I'm Not Jesus Mommy

Don’t go clubbing. Ever—The Collection

Relationships 101
Marriage can be defined as wishing death upon each other--Trapped Ashes 

If you want your boyfriend to take a group of white people to shark-infested waters, the best way to convince him is to turn up the stereo in a local bar and dance as if you’re auditioning to be a fully clothed stripper—Blood Surf 

History Revealed
In the 17th century, nobody stood up to evil. Also in the 17th century, Christians used teeth whiteners while heathens brushed theirs with dirt and acid—Solomon Kane

The Facts of Life
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—Hell 

Beauty generally fades with age, though acting ability apparently fades with age reversal—Troll

No grandma is cooler than Cloris Leachman. Actually, no living human being is cooler than Cloris Leachman—The Fields

Anatomy & Health
With heart problems, limit nightly activities to one drink and one cigar—Something Wicked This WayComes

It is possible to possess stunning green eyes up until the age of five or six, only to see them turn a pleasant if plain brown once you reach your mid-20s—Carnival of Souls

A herpatologist treats herpes, so if you don’t have ‘em, you don’t need one--Sinister 

One should always find the right balance between cannibalism and sunshine—Grimm Love

In some cultures, a third nipple is a sign of sexual prowess—The Man With the Golden Gun 

Gourmet Cooking
Microwaving a miniature poodle is suitable for 2 minutes and 59 seconds, but as soon as you hit the 3 minute mark, you can expect an explosion of baked beans—The Willies 

Never pair a potato pancake with a French bulldog--Sleep Tight 

Canned beef stew might taste like death, but its nutritious contents will help to keep your hair looking decent and shiny for a few months—House Hunting 

Parenting For Dummies
The best way to get an unruly child to take his medicine is to call in creepy bunny children pallbearers—Pinocchio 

I understand that in the midst of a blackout and home invasion, it’s tough to maintain order, but by the third “let’s split up and find the kids” interim, take a moment to put a bell on your spacey daughter already--The Purge

If you play with plastic bags, Nicole Kidman will tie you up and feed you to the kid monster—Malice 

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 

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—Come Out And Play

Never take parenting advice from a scarecrow – Baby Blues 

There are probably easier ways to keep an older boy from dating your daughter than to invite said older boy over for what's supposed to be a pleasant dinner party then suck down an entire bottle of red wine and slobber into an awkward fight with your teen. Easier, but none as entertaining...—The House At the End of the Street 

Around the World
British bystanders are the least helpful—Screamtime 

Perhaps it explains my clumsiness as something blood-related: Italians are not very good at walking, at least if it involves passing another person without crashing into them--Giallo 

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

Voodoo is like disco, but with less poom poom—Ritual 

Torturing and/or genetically modifying the human body is an act best done while wearing 6" heels—American Mary
Nothing is quite as flammable as a polyester dress from the 1970s—Bones 

Chekhov’s Law of Baseball Cards: If you feature a rare one, you best have an ugly poop-looking puppet destroy it—Goobers 

Freudian Analysis
The suppressed desires of your average college student circa 1984 include ballerinas, cowboys, showgirls, construction workers, surgeons, penises, KISS, and mimes—The Initiation 

It’s every girl’s dream to be Miss Crustacean –The Bay 

The average man dreams 27 times a night—Red Lights  

Most teddy bears fantasize about being born in Ohio—Chasing the Kidney Stone 

Fun With Words
Words that rhyme with brattitude include platitude, latitude, gratitude, and attitude--Bratz: The Movie 

In Central Asianspeak, My mother's a pediatrician" translates to "Yes, she is a crack whore"—Rollerball 

If you're wealthy, 'curious' and 'tragic' essentially mean the same thing—Dead of Night

En espanol, 'baby shower' translates to 'bay-bee shower'--Baby Shower

Internet-speak abbreviations were actually popularized by punkette mediums that dress like k.d. lang--Witchboard

Good To Know
You can learn a lot of shit at computer club—My Little Eye 

The best thing about having Charles Durning pursue you on foot is that even if you haven’t eaten in a few days, you’ll probably be able to outrun him pretty easilyWhen a Stranger Calls 

Potent Potables
When making a bargain martini, a pretzel is a sufficient, if not quite desirable substitute for an olive—The Thirteenth Floor 

There are ways to make tequila very unsexy. They tend to involve slobbery prostitutes with poodle hair—Mom 

The Animal Kingdom
It is impossible to dodge tarantulas without looking as though you are skipping down the Yellow Brick Road—Kingdom of the Spiders 

Never trust a moth. When it comes to horror movies, those things never have good intentions—Mama 

Even when they're eating someone's face off, bats in closeup are pretty darn adorable—The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Cinema Secrets
When filming, even with a low budget, it’s important to notice the little things, like when a large piece of hair is stuck to the center of your camera and therefore visible in several key scenes—Manhattan Baby 

When filmed in close-up, even a Pop-Tart can be frightening—Silent Hill: Revelations 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Worth a Binge

Few things make me happier than seeing the juggernaut that is a small studio horror film actually be good. There's something so refreshing about a company like Platinum Dunes (that same name that induces shudders of the Friday the 13th remake) produce something that's as original as it is effective. 

Although perhaps the title leaves something to be desired.

Quick Plot: The year is 2022, and America is enjoying a prosperous economy where only 1% of the population is unemployed. Though we don't quite know the details of how this new utopia came to be, we do learn that it's managed to be maintained by the annual Purge, a 12-hour evening wherein all acts of violence and vandalism are perfectly legal. Such an opportunity provides the otherwise well-behaved civilians with the vital release of all those pesky pent-up emotions, be they hatred for the lazy homeless or anger at your girlfriend's dad not accepting of your relationship.

This is the start of the problem for the Sandins, a wealthy white family living in the largest house on an uppity block. Dad James (Ethan Hawke) is an ace salesman peddling high-tech security systems that protect fellow 1%ers during the titular purge, while mom Mary (Lena Lannist--er, Headey) uncomfortably avoids geek son Charlie's questions about, you know, if it's REALLY okay to kill people one night a year. Rounding out the family is slutty daughter Zoey, a school uniform-clad teen who would rather be necking with her boyfriend.

Despite being happily perched atop the economic pyramid, the Sandins generally sit back during The Purge. While Dad is happy to benefit from its financial demands, Mom is clearly not aligned with its politics, even if she doesn't have to think too hard about it. The kids have grown up in a world where this is commonplace, lending the entire event a promising sense of moral questionability.

Upon this Purge, as you might guess based on the fact that the movie is called The Purge and categorized in the horror section, something goes wrong. Zoey's bad news boyfriend sneaks into the fortified mansion to get some dangerous alone time with disapproving dad, leaving Charlie manning the secure gates when a black homeless man is spotted outside, begging for help from the certain death he's about to receive from a band of Purgers. Understandably, the good-hearted Charlie lets the stranger inside, giving way to a hellish night filled with wealthy mask-clad murderers, overly helpful neighbors, and a whole lot of arguments involving duty vs. survival.

Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge made quite a mainstream splash in its theatrical run. The horror community, it seemed, had come to a general consensus that I was aware of going in: this was a brilliant premise that didn't quite deliver.

Yes and no.

The setup for The Purge IS brilliant. Like a more apocalyptic take on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, The Purge presents a positively fascinating, rich starting point for all sorts of horror to unfold. Imagine a utopian society that maintained its order for a simple price, that price being a mere 12 hours every year where all laws were suspended, where violence was encouraged, and no crime--be it rape or murder--was considered wrong. 

Though class isn't supposed to come into play, the very fact that the wealthy can afford to barricade themselves into modern fortresses while the less fortunate are subject to easy break-ins gives way to economic politics. There's a quick line that tells us that government officials of a certain rank are not to be harmed during The Purge, and surely, there's more of a story there. There's probably a whole novel that could be written about how the homeless community deals with the event, not to mention the mysterious history of what brought American society to this point in the first place.

My point is that The Purge is a great idea that deserves A LOT of further exploration and thankfully, its box office success seems to have guaranteed that. Perhaps a lot of early reviewers were disappointed with the film narrowing its focus to one family, but now knowing that we'll get more Purges, I'm happy to say that such a decision on DeMonaco's part was the right one.

The Sandins are not a perfectly drawn family. Daughter Zoey takes a while to tolerate, and even the grand Cersei Lannister can only do so much in hinting at the further depth of a token wife character. But in a fairly quick introduction to Dad's career and Charlie's thoughtfulness, we know enough about these people to care about how the events of this one evening will affect them as individuals and a unit. Perhaps the villains are a tad too Funny Games-lite, but their basic motivation--being 'haves' who feel entitled to hurt the 'have nots'--is clear and believable. Sure, a line like "Things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighborhood" is a little too on the nose, but I'll take overdone subtext to mindless bloodshed any day (think Saw VI to Captivity, for example).

High Points
As mentioned by pretty much anyone who mentioned The Purge, it really does start with a rich and potent concept

Low Points
For having such a brisk running pace, The Purge does waste some of its time early on with repetition in stalking through the dark house
Lessons Learned
Toy Story-esque robot baby-head creations can be useful in a home invasion, but equipping one with a two-way radio should definitely be included in the next prototype

I understand that in the midst of a blackout and home invasion, it’s tough to maintain order, but by the third “let’s split up and find the kids” interim, take a moment to put a bell on your spacey daughter already

Next year, rather than investing your Purge stock in security systems, consider investigating the creepy mask numbers instead

As you can see, I was extremely pleased with The Purge and am genuinely looking forward to seeing how the sequel pans out. There’s still plenty of potential in the material, and with DeMonaco still in the writer/director’s chair, such an idea is promising. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

I Hate When Mommy Calls Me Jesus

With a poster reminiscent of Orphan and a title deliberately eschewing the rules of punctuation, I(')m Not Jesus(,) Mommy was a streaming indie clearly made for a giddy ol' blogger like me.

Quick Plot: Dr. Kim Gabriel is a fertility expert whose bout with cancer has ironically rendered her unable to conceive her own child with supportive husband. When she's asked by a shady researcher named Roger to help participate in a government experiment bringing the first human cloned embryo to term, Kim finds the temptation of insemination a little too easy to pass up.

Seven years later, the world has changed. A lot.

Whereas in 2013 the U.S. government was using illegal Mexican immigrants as disposable test cases, radio announcements now tell us that any American sneaking over the Mexican border will be shot on sight. Curfews are enforced and food rations are distributed by federal employees. Utopia this is not.

Kim, now widowed, is eking out a miserable survival with her son David. Bundled up for a new ice age and sporting some ominous lesions on her face, Kim begins to sense something amiss when David demonstrates some handy skills with premonition and resurrection. 

Across town, Roger cares for his sister and niece, filling their time and souls with some hard-earned Old Testament wisdom. As anyone who's seen The Rapture might guess, such Abrahamic lessons can steer towards controversy pretty quickly.

Directed and co-written by Vaughn Juares, I'm Not Jesus Mommy is far too ambitious for its own good. Much of its grand theological movements come off as silly, and the very nature of its title makes the third act something of an anticlimactic wash. That being said, the film is kind of fascinating in some of its decisions. The complete second act switch is effectively jarring, leaving the viewer (or at least me) having absolutely no idea where the story will go. Unfortunately, then you remember the film’s title and realize the big mystery is frustratingly revealed without even watching.

High Points
Considering its shoestring budget, I'm Not Jesus Mommy is smart enough to establish its post-apocalyptic setting with some extremely clever and basic decisions. Kim (and actress Bridget McGrath) undergoes a complete make-under, with chapped lips and scraggly brown hair replacing the lip gloss and dye job worn by a successful doctor in a thriving world. It’s surprising how effective such simple choices are

Low Points
Should we talk about the title? I can forgive the absence of a comma that seems to be riling other reviewers (considering it's supposed to be said by a kid, the omission makes sense) but for the first 60 minutes or so, we're not in any way THINKING of Jesus or what he has to do with the story. It's almost a spoiler not just to the ending, but to the very thematic underlining of the film. 

Lessons Learned
Cell phones + angry car rides = certain doom

Just because you're lucky enough to get government sanctioned bread doesn't mean you should be all showy about it

In case of apocalypse, be sure to wear layers

I'm Not Jesus Mommy isn’t really a recommend, but it also seems unfairly maligned with a 2.8 IMDB rating. This is a low budget, highly flawed little movie, but it earns plenty of points for being something different. It tries too hard to do far too much, but the optimist in me appreciates a cheaply made first feature about government sanctioned human cloning causing a rapture. Maybe it’s just because I really love me some raptures. Point is, those who are looking for something new might find it worth checking out on Instant Watch. Know what you’re getting into and tread with caution, but hey: how many other cheaply made first features about government sanctioned human cloning causing a rapture will you watch this week?