Monday, November 24, 2014

Stop Picking At It!

Well that was weird.

Recently, I watched a chilling little Netflix streamer called Dark Touch. You'll have to wait until February's Attack of the Shorties for the full review, but I'll tell you now that I found it fairly great. On the surface, it was an easy killer kid film (my favorite kind) but much like the recent WWE released Oculus, the film proved to be an incredibly sad metaphor for child abuse. With that in mind, I was happy to seek out more films from director Marina de Van.

Quick Plot: Esther (played by the writer/director herself) is an attractive middle class young woman quickly rising through the corporate ranks at her marketing job and about to buy an apartment with her handsome, successful boyfriend. Life's just a bowl of cherries, or, as we're in France, a carton of cigarettes.

One night at the kind of parties French films like this one and Irreversible have led me to believe are daily occasions for attractive Europeans, Esther accidentally cuts her leg on some metal. Thinking nothing of it, she continues to dance and drink the night away, only realizing much later the true severity of the wound. A doctor urges her to get surgery, but for no clear reason, she decides to let it heal on its own.

Kind of.

Before you could open a bottle of red wine, Esther finds herself rather fascinated by her bloody infection. She cuts it open, chews at it, pokes at it, shreds it in order to tan what can be saved--

Yeah. Ew.

Throughout all of this self-mutilation, Esther continues her 'real' life, occasionally with disastrous results. A work dinner with important clients goes south quickly when Esther, after a few glugs of wine, begins to see her arm as being dislocated from her body. It's a fascinating and much-discussed scene that does a surreal job of contrasting this insane body horror with the dull bourgeois conversation held amongst professionals unwilling to fully acknowledge whatever madness might be around them. 

As director, writer, and star, Marina de Van truly gives her all in In My Skin. The term ‘brave’ performance usually just refers to an attractive actress playing a scene naked or without makeup, but what Van does is far more complicated and yes, brave. Esther isn’t fun or even likable, per say. Van puts a distance in her character that deliberately feels cold and almost off-putting. It’s not that we don’t like Esther: it’s more that we, like her fiance, can’t seem to really know her.

In My Skin calls to mind the works of David Cronenberg, a similarly experimental filmmaker whose fascination with the human body has led to some of the genre’s most memorably twisted moments. In My Skin isn’t quite as fulfilling as something like Videodrome, but it’s a strangely fascinating tale that leaves a definite mark on the viewer. I don’t think it’s for every horror fan and I haven’t fully reconciled what it was trying to do, but it’s the kind of film that will challenge you well after its final does of gore.

High Points
At first, I almost felt like the blankness of Esther was  something negative. Why not give us a little more of pre-cut Esther so we get to know and see how far she falls. By the end of the film, however, I realized how purposeful it was for Esther to be utterly ordinary and inaccessible. Any shading on her personality would skew one’s interpretation of what it all means

Low Points
That being said, I’m still not entirely sure what it all means. But I might just be a dumb ol’ Amerrkan

Lessons Learned
Potassium alum is the secret to tanning human skin

How I long to say "go to the doctor when you gash open your leg and find yourself bleeding profusely"...

And yet, dear reader, how can I espouse such a simple direction when time and time again, I find myself slicing a chunk of my finger off when cutting bread, only to power through the blood loss in order to finish dinner? With my multiple unnecessary scars, I say: I am in no position to give doctoral advice on such issues as this

Marina de Van is probably one of the most interesting, yet under the radar new voices in modern horror. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around In My Skin, but I loved the challenge of it and will certainly revisit it in the future. This is an unusual spin on body horror that might not be immediately satisfying, but is certainly worth the effort. It will stick with you.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kill Them. Kill Them All (Please)

Like so many forgettable slashers made in the mid-80s or low budget zombie indies filmed in backyards during the '90s, Crowsnest is yet another product of its trendy time. In this case, the fad is found footage, and like many a slasher or undead feast, it's a little lazy, a little scary, and ultimately, a passable if unmemorable under-90 minute stream on Instant Watch.

Quick Plot: Meet The Worst People In the World. 

Okay, perhaps that was harsh. These pretty young people aren't Nazis, as far as we can see. They're just Awful.
Capital A. Because when you get five giggling twentysomethings stuffed in the driver's parents' car in a haze of pot smoke and wine coolers--WINE COOLERS--there's really no other appropriate punctuation.

We'll get back to Just How Much I Hate These People later, but to run through the story is simple, especially if you've seen any of the myriad of found footage horror made this century. Justin just got a high tech video camera (which allows him the line "Thousand time zoom, bro!") and has naturally decided to test it out chronicling his trip to pal Kirk's cottage along with respective girlfriends Brooke and Amanda. Tagging along is Amanda's god-fearing fifth wheel little sister Danielle.

Because 25 year-olds with wealthy parents and apparently no other interests in life are awesome, Kirk takes the gang on a diversion to score some half priced beer at an off-the-beaten-track abandoned mining town he found online. Though we don't see their interaction with what we assume is a Cabin In the Woods-style harbinger (he's quoted and everything), we know enough to expect very bad things to happen to these fairly bad people.

The challenge I had in watching Crowsnest is that as a horror movie, it's fairly decent. There are a few outstanding jumps executed shockingly well. The lack of a soundtrack (something the occasional found footage film decides to use to disastrous effect) means sudden actions have that realistic come-from-nowhere effect that sleeker studio releases often fail at. With the lights out, this could prove to genuinely scare some viewers.

The flip side is that Crowsnest falls victim to the three major dooming tricks of found footage:

1. Unlikable characters
I truly thought, and I'd love to hear validation on this, that the characters were intentionally being set up to be horrid. Perhaps director Brenton Spencer was going for a Hostel-ish trick of creating bratty leads so that we almost think we want terrible things to happen to them, before realizing even the smarmiest white college boy doesn't deserve THAT. There's a chance that was indeed the plan. It's hard to imagine writer John Sheppard could have had his male characters trading lines like "when the river runs red, take the dirt road instead" to get a laugh. All five of Crowsnest's characters are spoiled, irresponsible, whiny, screechy, and not anywhere near as charming as they think they are. No, they don't deserve foot amputations, but wouldn't it work better as a film if they, I don't know, also didn't deserve a lesser toe amputation?

2. Shake your cam-cam-camera
Movies like REC get the best of both worlds: they can maintain the immediacy of handheld horror while their setup allows them to display professional camerawork because the characters filming are in the industry. Crowsnest never makes any excuses for its characters wobbly filming. That's fine as an idea, but watching a camera bob back and forth for 80 minutes isn't anyone's idea of a good time.

3. Put the f*cking camera down
The Last Exorcism was presented as an earnest documentary. They wouldn't give up easily. Night vision made the cameras in Grave Encounters a necessary tool just as much as it was for our entertainment. Crowsnest doesn't have that luxury. There is nothing useful about lugging around a video camera when all of your energy should be utilized escaping multiple homicidal maniacs. 

High Points
As mentioned earlier, Crowsnest does an excellent job on multiple counts in delivering out-of-nowhere scares

Low Points
Too bad I was rooting for those scares to prove fatal to all five of our maybe protagonists

Lessons Learned
When not drinking the wine coolers generally served at middle school parties, sexy girls always hog all the beer

Getting your head cut off really hurts

The best way to jump start a broken down vehicle is to be rear-ended

No, you don't have to go back for the camera. You never, ever, have to go back for the camera

Fans of found footage horror will actually find a few decent scares in Crowsnest. On the other hand, any viewer who prickles at seeing yet another batch of vacant pretty people do stupid things and pay for it might find the film insufferable. It's less than 90 minutes and streaming on Instant Watch, so the gamble is yours.

Monday, November 10, 2014

High School Is Hell

Getting old is hard.

I say this not as the woman who once pulled her back while buying a mattress or  the same who DVRs Jeopardy! with a vengeance, but as the film fan who now has absolutely no memory of why a disc was not just added, but bumped to the very top of her queue. Such is the case with 2009's Tormented.

Maybe I'd heard good things? Director Jon Wright has been in the horror spotlight recently for the beloved (though still unseen by  me) Grabbers. Perhaps it was that? Or maybe, more realistically, I saw a tagline that included the phrase "hell hath no fury like an asthmatic nerd" and figured, 'yeah, that's for me.'

Quick Plot: Darren Mullet was a chubby outcast dubbed Shrek by the mean kids at his English private school. We open on his funeral, as the bullied teen has just committed suicide, leaving behind one outcast friend who is now filled with rage at the cruel jocks who tortured the poor kid and the overachieving golden girl who never even knew that Darren existed, much less that he was madly in love with her.

Said overachiever is Justine, the sunny valedictorian who suddenly finds herself part of the A-list when the handsome Alexis asks her out. Naturally, the A-list includes such gems as the handsome but sociopathic prankster,, his dumb but sturdy righthand man, their dimwitted girlfriends, and a white rapper.

Fear not: the white rapper dies first. 

A lot more will follow, of course, as Darren makes a zombie/ghost resurrection into a grisly yet creative murder spree. First-time screenwriter Stephen Prentice tells the tale with a tricky balance of humor and horror, giving real weight to the effects of bullying but finding a lot of cleverness within the entire microcosm that is high school. Side characters include an adorably earnest goth click, a cruel gym teacher with a decidedly un-PC moral code, and a Keira Knightley fan club. 

These are all very good things.

Despite its rather trite premise and low budget, Tormented is a hugely enjoyable horror comedy crafted with surprising skill. Teenage dialogue can often be insufferable on film, but Prentice's script flows well and the young actors embody their ugliness with fun zest.
This is the kind of film that has bully comeuppance climax in a locker room towel slapping and fatal wedgie. When done right, that's a pretty great thing.

High Points
You have to applaud a film aimed at a younger audience that seems to insist on safe sex without making a point of it

Low Points
Did I miss something, or did we never actually learn how Darren came back, or more importantly, and SPOILER-y, why his asthma inhaler was his power source?

Lessons Learned
Boys always always want a shag with a movie

You don’t need a phone if you don’t have friends to talk to

If such tales as Carrie and Slaughter High have taught you nothing, let this film reinforce the time-old lesson that it really does pay to be nice to the uncool kids

Stray Observations
Hey Hannah, don't worry: there are indeed some people who would be far happier skipping the loud and obnoxious party in favor of staying home and watching Atonement.

I had a genuinely fun time watching Tormented. It's currently only a disc rental via Netflix, but it's definitely worth a gander, if not blind buy. I don't necessarily see myself revisiting it any time soon, but I'm definitely now going to scout out Grabbers and keep an ear out for screenwriter Stephen Prentice and Jon Wright's next work. Solid stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Your Mark, Get Set, Probably Die

As much as the humans hunting humans subgenre is a popular choice for genre film, it seems a little daunting to attempt when working with an indie budget. Let's see how newcomer Paul Hough handles the challenge.

Quick Plot: 80 people who happened to be on the same street corner one day find themselves inexplicably standing in line. Before they have time to ask names or Google map themselves, a voice that even the deaf characters can hear announces that they must compete in a race to the death. Actions such as stepping on grass or being lapped by other ‘runners’ will lead to, we learn, messy head implosion. No doctor’s note gets you off the hook.

It’s a simple enough premise that most genre fans are well-acquainted with from such works as Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, and The Long Walk. I’ve spoken at length about how such storylines are, pretty much my favorite thing ever (perhaps because I saw The Running Man in the theaters at the age of five, or just because I’m actually something of a very twisted human being). Naturally, the plot description of The Human Race was enough to make me put it at the top of my queue.

Boy am I glad I did. Written and directed over the course of four years by Paul Hough, The Human Race finds some fantastically innovative ways to tell a story we’ve all heard before. There are some simple decisions that render it notable--major characters are deaf and speak with sign language, while the star (Big Brother winner Eddie McGee) happens to be a war veteran with one leg and some mean crutch skills--proving so simply how easy it can be to instantly make your movie more interesting. 

It doesn't stop there. The film has plenty of fun with its structure, alternative character flashbacks with the race to keep the pace moving. There are a lot of genuine surprises with where some of the action and characters go, and most importantly, some strong attempts at bringing depth to some of their interactions. 

The Human Race isn't a perfect film. The budgetary restrictions are occasionally quite clear, and the brisk 90 minute running time almost seems too short to adequately capture such a large group of canon fodder. Some viewers with harsh standards might find qualms, but I was happily impressed with how Hough and his crew handled the story. It's involving, shocking, and filled with the kind of touches you want to see from new filmmakers. Also, it's about a race to the death. I’m always in for that.

High Points
It would be a shame to spoil one of the best twists (especially since it occurs within 10 minutes of the film's opening) so I'll just say that The Human Race is quite cheeky about character introductions

I've said it time and time again: movies are more interesting with diverse casts. It's something Stake Land's Jim Mickle seems to have learned, and it's great to see Paul Hough incorporate the young, the elderly, the Christian, the Muslim, the deaf, and so on

Low Points
Pity the DVD that doesn't come with subtitles, particularly when it's tough to keep a large cast's character names straight

Lessons Learned
Stay off the grass. Seriously.

Cardio, cardio, and cardio

Crutches have some pretty nifty use when you happen to be thrown into a cruel and unusual race to the death


I thoroughly enjoyed The Human Race and eagerly look forward to Mr. Hough's output. The DVD includes a dynamic commentary with several cast and crew (many of whom did double duty) and it's an enjoyable listen for any film fan with an interest in crafting a low budget genre picture. Those viewers with a mild allergy to low budget cinema might occasionally sneeze, but this is a strong little genre film that makes good on its ambitions.