Monday, July 28, 2014

You Call That a Kangaroo? THIS Is a Kangaroo

It hardly seems like a full decade has passed since the success of a little movie called Saw signaled a change in theatrical horror. After the latter half of the '90s brought us mostly disappointing Scream knockoffs starring pretty WB Network twentysomethings who never met an R they couldn't PG-13, a new generation of filmgoers eagerly welcomed James Wan and Leigh Whannell's more mean-spirited (and far more blood covered) indie hit.

What this meant for the rest of the industry was that uncompromisingly gruesome violence was the new self-aware slasher. Like it or loathe it, the term 'torture porn' became shockingly household, especially after the success of Eli Roth's meta(ish) Hostel.

Filmed in Australia and loosely based on recent events, Greg McLean's Wolf Creek was quickly targeted by critics (the late great Roger Ebert and David Edelstein among them) as the epitome of this new and cruel subgenre. The fact that it had its wide release opening day on Christmas in the U.S. didn't help matters. Whether or not Wolf Creek fits the much debated categorization of torture porn, it's still hard to argue that it was one of the more brutal representatives.

Also, as some would say, one of its best.

Wolf Creek wasn’t a game changer, but the film was well-made enough to catch many a horror fan’s attention. Some eight years later, McLean apparently found some inspiration to pick up where he left off.

Quick Plot: A pair of jerky highway cops pull over a junky truck going decidedly under the speed limit. While their ticket-happy attitudes aren’t that admirable, they don’t quite warrant being shot in the head and/or burned alive.

Ah, the outback.

Mick Taylor is back in action, luring tourists to their extremely painful rape and death. We meet a pair of attractive young German backpackers who seem primed for the next 90 minutes of our time, only to instead (MILD SPOILER) bow out early and make way for Paul, a British university student who sort of resembles a Shia Labeouf with more presumed respect for musical theater.

Essentially, what we have here is Wolf Creek...again. Only this time, there are CGI kangaroos.

In 2005, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was a refreshing entry into the horror scene. Sure, it stuck to fairly well-explored territory (attractive young people lured to their horrible deaths by an extremely powerful and charismatic sadist) but its execution was sharp enough that the film rose above its (if you want to say it) 'torture porn' brethren. McLean took his time skillfully building up his characters with nearly an hour's worth of seemingly mundane plotting, making it all the more jarring when they found themselves cowering at the hands of the outstandingly terrifying John Jarratt. There were minor twists on the typical slasher formula (the order of deaths, for example, violating what 40 years of genre cinema has standardized) to keep you guessing, along with the beautifully open and mysterious character that was the Australian outback.

I don't know what I wanted from a film called Wolf Creek 2, but I'm pretty sure what McLean made will be, for some, everything they hoped for. Jarratt's back with even more screen time to chew and spit out, this time leaning a little more towards latter day Freddy Krueger spouting wisecracks and puns as he destroys his prey. We are once again treated to some bait 'n switch victims, with plenty of innocent bystanders taking the brunt. Mick Taylor continues his personal war on tourism and reveals, probably to the glee to many, his Martyrs-like underground lair complete with an entire city's worth of tortured souls.

For me, this was far less exciting than it sounds.

McLean is, let it not be argued, good at making movies. He shoots his outback setting with admirable grandeur and terror, and paces his action in a way that feels quick but not rushed. It's just that for me, Wolf Creek 2 was just not a tale that I could invest in. I'd seen it before, just without the CGI kangaroos.

I could probably have gone on living without the CGI kangaroos.

High Points
Much like the first Wolf Creek, this film’s eagerness to keep you guessing about the identity of your final girl keeps the action interesting

Low Points
I normally love John Jarratt and thought his Mick Taylor was something truly special in Wolf Creek, but here, he just feels a little too much of a wisecracking jokester. Sure, he’s still doing terribly violent things to innocent people, but how many corpses laying around an endless dungeon can you pass by before it just feels like overkill?

Lessons Learned
Australian cops are also offended by the term 'pig'

Know your Australian folk songs. Love your Australian folk songs.

First rule of the outback: never ever stop

The second rule of the outback: never go there

If you loved Wolf Creek, there is little reason you won’t find some enjoyment from Wolf Creek 2. If you liked Wolf Creek and were hoping to see something new, well, CGI kangaroos are, I guess, new. The film left me rather cold, but it's hard to argue with McLean's skill behind the camera. I’d much rather see him explore new territory with his next film, but as horror sequels go, one generally expects much worse.

Monday, July 21, 2014

For Meat Lovers Only

I can't remember what made me seek out the Netflix Very Long Wait disc of Frightmare, other than, perhaps, the fact that this somewhat hard to find film WAS a Very Long Wait on Netflix. 

We covet what is just out of reach.

Quick Plot: A black-and-white prologue introduces us to Dorothy and Edmund, a married couple so in love that he fakes insanity to share her asylum sentence after she's caught killing and eating people. 

And you thought your parents were crazy.

Some years later, Edmund's eldest daughter Jackie is a grown woman attempting to care for her half-sister Debbie, a wild 15-year-old who might have inherited her mother (and Jackie's stepmother)'s taste for human flesh. Across the countryside, Edmund and Dorothy have been released to spend their golden years in complete sanity and peace.


Poor put upon Jackie learns the hard way that blended families can be cruel. As her psychologist boyfriend investigates her past, Jackie begins to suspect--pretty rightly--that Dorothy might not have been quite as cured as the hospital administration seemed to think. Using her skills as a tarot card reader, Dorothy begins luring new meals into her secluded home. 

You have to give it to the old broad: you can never be wrong telling someone's fortune if you're pretty certain the reading will end with you eating them.

Directed by Peter Walker, Frightmare is a fun if minor little horror film. As the wickedly murderous clairvoyant carnivore, Sheila Keats makes quite a special villain. Her buggy eyes,  cackling voice, and extreme enthusiasm for, you know, eating people is the kind of thing that makes any movie a little more fun. 

Other than that, Frightmare is fairly uneventful. There’s a nicely timed ambiguous ending, a few good axings, and most notably, an old lady eating people. 

It is quite simple to please me.

High Points
I'm a sucker for any film with an aggressively discordant score, and for that, Frightmare suits me just fine

Low Points
Perhaps I've been watching too much Season 5 of Buffy as of late, but MAN does this 15-year-old brat get under my skin

Lessons Learned
Being in an asylum for 15 years MUST cure you

It takes two to tarot 

Orphanage, convent, it's really all the same

Frightmare isn't necessarily worth its 'Long Wait' status on Netflix, but it was a fun enough little watch that will easily entertain those who enjoy British horror with a sense of humor. If it's in the cards, check it out. Otherwise, Killer's Moon is still streaming...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Splunkin' We Shall Go

Sanctum must have come out at a time when I went to movie theaters regularly, for I recall its theatrical trailer beat by beat. Oddly enough, none of that advertising clued me in to the fact that this James Cameron-produced 'adventure' story was more 'nature wants to kill you with slow pain' and less 'Avatar underground.'

Clearly studios have no idea how to get a gal like me into a cinema.

Quick Plot: Welcome to a giant hole located in scenic New Guinea, where a team of commercial explorers (or something) are cave diving to find a pathway to the ocean. Leading the wetsuit-wearing daredevils is Frank (played by Richard Roxburgh in a far cry from his villainous role in Moulin Rouge), a grizzly Aussie saddled with a fairly ungrateful teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield, the lead mask-wearing gentleman in The Purge).

When Josh fails to bring some much needed cargo down to the crew, Mother Nature decides to use it as a teaching moment and bring disaster and death to all. This comes in the form of a cyclone that yields torrential rain on those silly enough to be cave diving, primarily Josh, Frank, the cool yet dumbly named Crazy George, villainous financier Carl, and his beautiful yet dumbly dumb girlfriend Vic.

What follows is a sort of museum adaptation of The Descent, minus the monsters or interesting character dynamics. Despite what its lowly Rotten Tomatoes score might suggest, this isn't necessarily a terrible thing.

Directed by documentarian Alister Grierson, Sanctum was heavily marketed as a sort of adventurous action film from the people who brought you Avatar. This isn't entirely wrong, as it was apparently filmed using the same high-tech 3D camera equipment. James Cameron is listed as an executive producer and while his involvement isn't directly known, this does indeed feel as the kind of film he'd sit back on his golden couch and watch (I like to imagine said golden couch includes a unicorn-skin blanket and popcorn cooked in dodo bird oil).

Much of the grandeur is lost on the small screen, but that doesn't mean we're not still feeling a bit of a clog in our throat as characters negotiate shoddy breathing equipment fathoms below civilization. The script has little to offer in the way of good dialogue or character nuance, but I tend to forgive a movie that substitutes said ingredients for an unlikable character dying a horrible death via chain scalping in a cave.

Yes, I said scalping, and yes, that is essentially what happened. Something oddly ignored by the original American marketing for Sanctum was just how brutal a film it is. We're talking visibly broken bones, the bends, mercy killing (in multiples), and aforementioned scalping. The happiest moment involves bat poop, for goodness sakes!

High Points
Really this is a lesson, but it's one I preach so hard that I'm simply too happy to not highlight the fact that Sanctum teaches us--in a truly visual way--the important of a hair tie when cave diving for your life

Low Points
You know, when lines like "We go down here, even GOD won't know where we are!" are written with such enthusiasm and spoken with a mild amount of it, I suppose one could find fault

Lessons Learned
Panic is a vulture that sits on your shoulder (because why not?)

Trust the cave. I mean, it's trying to kill you in all sorts of horribly painful ways, but still,just trust it

As Frank's costar Nicole Kidman learned in Moulin Rouge, coughing up that tiny touch of blood can only end one way

Listen to the nice man with the cute accent and just put on the dead girl's wet suit already. Chicks, man. Amiright?

Now streaming on Instant Watch, Sanctum isn't a total waste of your time. Sure, the idea of an angry wilderness taking out insignificant humans has been done with more terror (The Descent) and poetry (The Grey) in recent years, but I found myself genuinely involved in the film's action. This isn't particularly good, but those of you who have sat through a 45 minute nature film in IMAX at your local nature museum only to wonder how it would go if the movie incorporated more bloodlust will certainly find some worth.

Monday, July 7, 2014

There Ain't No Hole In a Jug Face

A horror film set in the backwoods that DOESN'T involve pretty white tourists or a number after its title?

Count me in.

Quick Plot: Somewhere in the woods of southern America lives a clan of semi-civilized folks practicing a sort of He Who Walks Behind the Rows-esque faith. We learn most of the details in a hauntingly beautiful credits sequence that displays oil crayon drawings narrating the families' history.

Some time in the past, people were dying of smallpox. Naturally, the best solution anyone could find was to have one of its citizens craft moonshine jugs in a trance state. If and when the potter produced a jug that bore the face of someone in the community, it was deemed that The Pit--which is exactly what it sounds like, minus the sociopath teddy bear, trollogs, and obnoxious little boys--wanted said model's blood. Said model had his or her throat slit over The Pit, and smallpox was eradicated.

Traditions die hard, but they die harder than John McClane's attitude in the backwoods of Tennessee. In the present day, these, well, juggalos, of a sort, continue to live by the rules of The Pit, occasionally sacrificing one of their own when the current potter Dawai (played by The Woman's Sean Bridgers in a role that couldn't be further from his misogynist patriarch in that film) matches his creations to a resident. 

This is, as you might expect, a problem in a small interwoven community where there can only be so many jugfaces for so many jugs. Young Ada (played by another Woman refugee, the wonderful Lauren Ashley Carter) learns this the hard way when she discovers she's next for The Pit. Complicating matters is the fact that she's also been set to 'be joined' with the only male around her age who isn't related to her, and further by the fact that she's a few secret months pregnant with the baby of the only male around her age who IS related to her. 

Move over, Bella Swan: this chick has REAL problems. 

Running just over 80 minutes, debut filmmaker Chad Crawford Kinkle's Jug Face tells a tight story while creating a much bigger world. We don't get a detailed history of this community--they don't even a name, come to think of it--but Kinkle's skill at fleshing out their world without flourishing it is incredibly impressive. We don't NEED Ada's fascinating but silent grandfather to flash back to previous generations. Everything that matters exists in these characters' faces.

It's here where Kinkle demonstrates a lot of talent, not just in his storytelling efficiency but also in his casting. Carter has one of those faces that every director should love, with deeply expressive eyes that can convey layers of history without dialogue. Ada isn't necessarily a likable character; her choices lead to the death of several innocent characters, and she continues to make them even after she recognizes this. In another actress's hands, Jug Face would be a tough film to connect with. Sure, we're on Ada's side because who wants to have their throat slit over a bloody hole, but when you think of the greater good, should we be?

Jug Face was made after it won a screenplay contest, and it's easy to see why. In the realm of rote American horror, this is an original tale. The film has some weaknesses (primarily in the final execution of some of its more supernatural details) but overall, it succeeds at being engaging, disturbing, and most importantly, fresh. It's such a pleasure to be able to say that. 

High Points
It's always nice to see horror's fairy godfather Larry Fessenden onscreen, and he does not disappoint here. As Ada's father, Fessenden gets to create a fully rounded character in playing both a responsible community leader deeply devoted to his faith, and a genuinely caring dad charged with making some truly awful decisions

There's a jug band musical sequence that involves spoons and washboards, and it is fabulous

Low Points
So without spoiling anything, at some point in Jug Face, there's a ghost and it's just as cheesy as you really don't want it to be

Lessons Learned
No man will ever get to bear babies

Always know where the red paint is stored, particularly if an engagement is in your near future

The only thing worse than being jug faced by your friend, whipped by your dad, and impregnated and abandoned by your brother is having Sean Young for your mom

Jug Face isn't a great horror film, but it's so fresh in its premise and strong in creating its universe that I'm simply thrilled to recommend it. It also benefits tremendously from an outstanding cast that takes the film seriously, something you don't always find in the lower budget realm of horror. It's now on Instant Watch and well worth that quick 80 minute stream.