Friday, March 31, 2017

Day 151: The First Ghost Story I Ever Heard

Taking a little break from movie reviews today to go into a good memory for me. I was five years old and staying with my Uncle Sam at a little apartment while my parents did...something, I have no idea. I remember three things about that visit: being told I eat like I've been on a desert island, I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater and Sam told me a ghost story. I might have heard other ones before but this is the first one that stuck in my memory.

There is a ne'erdowell kid, let's call him Johnny, living in a small town. He keeps taking dares from his friends to do crazier and crazier things. There is a legend in the town about the grave of Old Man Jenkins. See, Old Man Jenkins was the meanest old man in town. If your ball rolled into his yard, he would keep it. If you tried to ring his doorbell for trick or treating or to sell something for school, he would send his vicious dog after you. When he died, all the kids in town breathed a sigh of relief.

His grave was on a lonely plot of land that all the kids passed on the way to and from school. It was said that anyone who disturbed his rest would be dragged down into the grave with him. This presented a golden opportunity for Johnny. He bet his friends that he could go dance on Old Man Jenkin's grave with no problems. Everyone was eager for Johnny to do the dare but everyone was too scared to go with him to verify his action. Johnny got the bright idea that he would stick his trusty switchblade knife in the dirt beside the grave to prove he had been there. The next day, all the kids would see it sticking out of the ground on their walk to school.

With the conditions agreed upon, Johnny sneaked out of his house in the middle of the night and walked calmly over to the plot of land with the grave. He jumped the fence surrounding it and, seeing no one around walked directly up to Old Man Jenkin's grave. As he approached, the wind grew colder and the moon disappeared behind a cloud. Johnny could hear strange noises in the darkness and suddenly found himself very scared. He decided to get the dare over with as quickly as possible. He squatted down, popped out the blade on his knife and jammed it into the ground as hard as he could. As he turned to leave, he felt it. There was something tugging on his jacket. Old Man Jenkins had reached his hand up through the grave and was grabbing him, trying to drag him down into the grave! Johnny refused to look but he fought and he fought with all his might until, finally, his heart gave out from terror and he could fight no more.

The next day, as the kids walked to school, the first group that passed the lonely plot of land witnessed a horrific sight. There, pinned to the ground by his own knife, was the corpse of Johnny, frozen in a look of eternal terror.

Not bad, right? You've probably heard a variation of it before. Thinking about it now, I can definitely say it influenced my taste in horror stories as I grew up. Movies or stories where there are ambiguous supernatural elements are my favorite. Maybe there is a ghost in the old insane asylum that possesses people or maybe a poor guy just went insane and started killing his friends. Maybe there are ghosts at the Yankee Peddlar Inn or maybe the innkeepers are about to scare themselves to death believing there are ghosts. Movies where you can fill in the blanks with your imagination are some of my favorites but also, movies where the characters can fill in the blanks with their imaginations are the best.

Hope you liked this one. Traumatize some kid with that story soon.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Day 150: I Saw the Devil

There are hard to watch movies that make repeated viewings seem like a gruesome chore and there are hard to watch movies that pay off repeat viewings. This one falls squarely in the latter camp and is one of my favorite Korean horror flicks ever.

On a wintry night, a young woman is stuck on the side of the road. A man pulls over to offer her help but things quickly turn deadly for her. Unfortunately for the killer, the woman's fiance was a secret agent with the government (like a Secret Service bodyguard type). The grieving man sets out to find the killer and make his life a living hell. Very bad things happen when these two forces collide and I don't want to give away any more.

Sometimes, the "hero" is so brutal, you feel sorry for the serial killer. But then the killer will go and do something horrible and you are back in the corner of the grieving badass. As one pursues the other, the movie becomes a sort of Eyes Wide Shut of evil as the killer encounters some of his fellow enthusiasts and some amateurs along the way. The balance between hunter and prey is always tipping and the collateral damage is truly frightening.

This is not an easy movie to watch (one scene, where a man's genitals get hammered, is rather brutal) and features all manner of violence, cannibalism, torture and depravity. However, if you want to challenge yourself to see how far you would go for revenge, or just want to see a satisfyingly dark movie...check it out.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Day 149: The Descent

Neil Marshall broke into the big time with his 2005 movie, The Descent. I had been a fan since his earlier werewolf film, Dog Soldiers. The two have a lot in common and I am a big fan of the Descent.

Dog Soldiers featured a pretty much all male cast, going to do one thing in a remote location and ending up trapped in something terrifying. The Descent alters that formula only by gender as a group of female friends go spelunking only to find they are not alone in the caves.

Like all good horror, a sense of claustrophobia really makes this movie work. Placing these four women far away from daylight, open spaces, help and rescue really ups the danger factor for those involved. Being isolated is bad enough, but sometimes having to squeeze through tiny spaces between massive rocks is extra nerve-wracking. In fact, this movie would be intense enough even without the introduction of the mutant cave dwellers who are all to eager for some fresh flesh to consume.

That same key to the horror, the cave setting, is the only way the women can fight back. Instead of being helpless victims picked off one by one, they have to use their underground skills to make quick escapes or fight back. This horror satisfies on the level of both being terrorized and the catharsis of turning the tide on one's attackers. Depending on which ending you see, you will get a very different emotional outcome. I first saw the European ending, which is very moving. The American one is a little more brash and "in your face." Both leave the protagonists in a very different place so watch carefully and make your own decisions about which was better.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Day 148: V/H/S

Found footage has been a popular subgenre of Horror for quite awhile (ever since the Blair Witch Project). The immediacy of the experience puts the viewer in a fun position for experiencing horror as you are limited in what information you receive. You can only see what the camera chooses to shoot, which is usually guided by a human intelligence. In third person horror movies, the camera can be anywhere and show anything, making it kind of frustrating when it chooses not to show something. The shortcomings of budget and even sometimes acting can be hidden with a good found footage setup.

So it was only a matter of time before someone made a found footage anthology. This first volume includes Adam Wingard (who would go on to the make the Blair Witch sequel), Joe Swanberg, and Ti West as well as David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid and a group called Radio Silence.

The frame story, by Adam Wingard, is about a group of teen criminals who are hired to break into a creepy old house and retrieve a certain VHS tape. They find the owner dead in front of a stack of TVs and their watching of videos makes up the bulk of the movie. The ending is downright nonsensical but there is some good spooky stuff in the early going. I am not a big fan of the frame story.

The first real story is Amateur Night by Bruckner, who directed the excellent sort-of anthology Signal. This one is about a group of bros trying to get laid who have hidden cams in their glasses. They stumble across a shy, freaky girl who turns out to be hiding a secret. Bad things happen. Lots of people liked this segment so much it got its own spin-off movie (which I won't say the title of as it is a spoiler for this movie). I found all the characters hard to watch and painfully awful. I know this is all sort of the point but it didn't make it easier to sit through. One relatable character would have been nice.

The second story is Second Honeymoon by Ti West and it is barely a thumbnail of an idea. A couple traveling the west on a second honeymoon is stalked by an unknown force that films them while they sleep. The presentation is so short it doesn't really get a chance to escalate in a frightening way. Basically, this needed some more room to breathe.

Tuesday the 17th is the next one and it is directed by McQuaid, who also did the horror-comedy, I Sell the Dead. This one works as a meta-comedy because it involves a final girl returning to the woods where she survived an initial attack by a creature whose features are obscured by a tracking malfunction (like on an old VCR). The girl brings some jerks with her as cannon fodder for the creature so she can trap it and kill it. This one is clever enough and almost a commentary on the nostalgia of 80s slasher tropes. I did like the "glitch" effect.

The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is directed by Joe Swanberg (who stars in the Second Honeymoon segment). It all takes place on skype as a young woman thinks her house is haunted and she notices a strange bump on her skin. I have to give credit for an original ending even if it is goofy as hell. Again, some moments here and there but nothing to write home about.

The last story, 10/31/98, is my favorite of the movie but gets almost no love online. The Radio Silence group filmed it and it tells a perfect little mini-story. Some teens get dressed up to go to a Halloween party and end up at the wrong house. When they stumble upon a bizarre ritual in the attic, things get frantic. There are some good, chilling special effects here. The ending is one of those classic horror things that just works for me.

As on all these, your mileage may vary but there is more here to like than dislike. I would give the whole thing a C+, maybe B-.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Day 147: The Amityville Horror

This is one of those rare situations where I actually read the book before I saw the movie. I was in a hotel room in Charleston and I couldn't put the book down. The supposed real life account of what happened to the Lutz family was plenty scary in written form.

The movie follows the book pretty closely. A disturbed boy shotguns his family to death in the middle of the night and, later, the Lutz family moves into the same house where they find hidden rooms, too many flies and an imaginary friend for their daughter who doesn't seem to have everyone's best interest in mind.

The scuzzy, 70s filming really adds to the claustrophobia of this movie. The house seems lived in and the threats seem disturbingly real. Some things don't translate well from the book (one of the most chilling moments in the book featured Kathy Lutz seeing a pair of glowing red eyes outside her daughter's window but it looks kind of goofy on the big screen). There is an escalation of events and even the father seeming to go slowly mad like Jack Nicholson in the Shining. James Brolin is no Jack Nicholson. Rod Steiger does a fine job as a local priest who tries to bless the house. But he is no Max Von Sydow. Margot Kidder got one of her few non-Superman roles here and probably acquits herself best of all the actors involved.

The production value makes this look and feel a little on the cheap side. Which can be helpful in some scenes, but a distraction in others. I would recommend reading the short book and allowing yourself to wonder if it all did really happen.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Day 146: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Another classic comes up in the rotation. And another movie series that became a parody of itself almost immediately.

When Nancy and her friends start dreaming about a man in a striped sweater and a fedora, they realize they are all having the same dreams and can't get any answers out of the adults in town. When they start dying in their dreams (and subsequently, in the real world) the silence of the adults becomes more dangerous. Nancy has to figure out how to stop Freddy Kreuger, a man who attacks you at your most vulnerable.

Maybe it was the time period in which it was filmed but every frame of this movie feels like a caffeine headache one suffers from after being awake for too long. The gritty feel of all the sets and locations really sold the evil in this one. Most people don't remember but Freddy wasn't a pun-chugging joke machine his first time up at bat. Maybe he got cocky as the movies went on. He was all about cutting to the chase and killing people with that iconic razor glove. That his backstory was so damn dark also helped sell things.

This is one of those movies that has cache for me because it came out when I was a kid. It was forbidden for awhile and then, when I was able to watch it, it poked at some archetypes that scared me. Looking back, some scenes are ridiculous (such as Johnny Depp somehow being filled with 80 gallons of blood) but Wes Craven did a strong job making the whole movie feel dark and twisted. I see why this spawned so many sequels.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Day 145: Jaws

You know how it is hearing a song that has inspired other songs that came after it? While the original might be totally new to you, it feels familiar because so many others have worked off of it. I feel that way when I hear Beatles tracks I've never heard. And I feel the same about Jaws, which I didn't see until after I had seen so many imitators and even its own sequels.

This is the favorite movie of my best friend, who has no doubt seen it dozens of times. I came to the party relatively late and only sat down to watch it all the way through after I was 30. Despite all the bad clones and tepid remakes, I was still blown away by the original and the power of Spielberg's directing.

Roy Scheider stars as Chief Brody, a police chief on the coastal community of Amity, who suddenly has to deal with a giant great white shark attacking his swimmers right before the fourth of July holiday. Richard Dreyfuss is a marine biologist named Hooper who comes to help out but the team isn't complete until they recruit local crank/shark killer Quint (Robert Shaw). The three go hunting for the shark in hopes of salvaging the economy of the town, that relies on the beach tourism.

All the build up is nice and scary in this one. Before shutting down the beaches, we get scenes of people bobbling up and under the waves never to return. Searching for two missing fishermen leads to a great horror scene where their bodies turn up in pieces underwater. The famous speech about the USS Indianapolis is pure dread as Quint describes the survivors being eaten by hordes of sharks. Jaws is a classic monster in most senses: able to cross vast distances at will, popping up at ironic times and being super hard to kill.

I would imagine the only people who haven't seen this movie all the way through are those who only watched edited TV versions but I would highly recommend seeing it uncut. The tension and suspense are masterful. Hard to beat good old Jaws.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Day 144: Insidious

James Wan is one of those divisive directors but I think he has a pretty good lock on making original horror. Despite the fact that his inventions become boorish clones of the original after a few movies (looking at you, Saw), he has some great concepts and a keen sense of what would make a horrific visual.

Insidious follows a family who appear to be living in a haunted house due to the weird stuff going on around the couple (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their son. Refreshingly, they move out of the creepy old house immediately to get away from the slamming doors and nightmares but, of course, whatever is haunting them is following them as well. There are some nice creepy moments after the family move where apparent ghosts show up and vanish just as quickly (I am thinking of a scene with Byrne and a young boy dressed like a Newsie). Eventually, they call in experts who tell them that there is a malevolent force looking to take over their son's body. The movie becomes a cross between the Exorcist and the Sixth Sense with the family and the demonologists working to keep the boy safe from bodily invasion in the real world while the father searches for his spirit in a foggy outland called The Further.

The Darth Maul looking villain, and his reliance on Tiny Tim's Tiptoe through the Tulips, are sufficiently creepy. There are some good shots with the demon sort of over the kid's shoulder looking like a baroque depiction of nightmares. This movie also gets a second life if you watch the excellent documentary The Nightmare, about sleep paralysis. Apparently, the movie overlaps with the real phenomenon pretty well.

I have never seen parts 2, 3 and 4 but I am in no hurry to. Hollywood has never met a decent idea it can't run into the ground. As a standalone movie, I would give it a B.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Day 143: Blade 2

I know some would argue that this is a superhero movie and not a horror movie but Guillermo Del Toro (one of my favorite horror directors) brought it to the screen and I would argue it has just as much horror as action.

The Blade series follows the adventures of a man who was born half-vampire and can walk in the sunlight. He hunts down vampires all over the world and kills them to avenge the attack that turned his mother into a vamp. This movie sees a new breed of vampire that only feeds on other vampires. The powers that be in the vampire world assign a group of vampire assassins known as The Blood Pack to work with Blade in taking down these super vampires. Wackiness ensues.

For every scene of vampires breaking into blood banks or being generally evil, we get an action sequence of Wesley Snipes kicking unholy amounts of ass. The Blood Pack are fun as foils (Ron Perlman plays one of them) and Kris Kristofferson reprises his role of Whistler, the mentor to Blade. Del Toro keeps it from getting overstuffed and brings blood back into the series (the first movie just had a lot of vampires turning to ash). There is plenty of grue and gore as Blade works his way through all kinds of vampiric enemies.

If you like your horror mixed with action, this is not bad at all. The Reapers (the super vamps) are pretty scary in their conception. This is a slightly silly movie but fun on a Saturday afternoon.  Oh, and for fans of him, that is Norman Reedus as Scud, Blade's weapon maker.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Day 142: Spirits of the Dead

This is an anthology movie from three of the biggest names in European cinema at the time (Vadim, Fellini and Malle) and all are supposedly based on Edgar Allen Poe stories (but none of the popular ones). I watched this during last October's 31 horror movies.

The first story follows Jane Fonda's countess as she lives a life of debauchery on the next property over from her cousin (Peter Fonda). He saves her life one day when she is caught in a hunting trap. She becomes enamored with her cousin (which makes it weirder that they are played by real life siblings) and, after he rejects her lifestyle, she accidentally kills him by burning down his barn. The appearance of an odd, black horse soon afterwards is where the weirdness starts.

The second story is about a man in a confessional telling a priest about how he has been haunted by a doppelganger his whole life. It is just freaky enough to land the ambiguous ending.

The third story tells of the life of Toby Dammit, a well-respected actor who is going a little insane. His whole sequence feels like a dream.

These are certainly interesting little mini-movies. The very European nature of it makes it a bit surreal and a little pretentious. All the actors do a great job but sometimes the narratives fail to stick their landings.

If you like avant garde horror that is not scary in the slightest, check it out. Worth it for completists of the directors involved. For normal folks, I say skip it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Day 141: Wyrmwood- Road of the Dead

This little Australian nugget is a bit on the crazy side but don't let the posters comparing it to Mad Max sway you.

After a meteor falls to earth, a good chunk of the planet becomes instant zombies. The movie is mostly about Barry and his sister, Brooke. Brooke gets captured by a paramilitary group early on and is experimented on by a weirdo named Doc. Barry, meanwhile, has to kill his wife and child when they become infected. From there on, he is on a mission to find his sister. Along the way, he meets the usual ragtag group of survivors. Adventures are had and zombies are killed.

The thing I admired about this movie was the sheer ambition of it. It tries to add several new elements to the zombie mythology by having them breathe flammable air and becoming fast zombies after the sun sets. When Brooke develops the psychic power to control zombies, it all seems like "Sure, why not?" with every crazy thing that has happened in the movie before that.

None of the characters are safe here (as in any good zombie movie). The effects are quite good for a first timer and the action sequences are well-staged. The crazy bits help smooth over that this is, basically, just another entry into the every growing field of zombie horror. I would give this a C+.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Day 140: Baskin

The title means "Police Raid" in Turkish but don't think for a second that this is an action movie. I recently watched this a second time despite seeing things I never wanted to see the first time around. Watching it with someone else helps alleviate the creepiness, for sure.

The story follows five Turkish police officers as they finish dinner and get called to a gypsy camp to back up other police who have already arrived and run into trouble. The whole thing starts creepy with one of the cops being sick, toads appearing at random, raw meat being carried in a bucket and filmed in close up and a sense of unease over the entire proceedings. We will flash back to that restaurant several times because it seems to be the last place where things were kind of normal. After hitting something (someone?) on the road, the cops find weird symbols scratched into their vehicle. Not long afterwards, they swerve to avoid something else in the road and crash into a river. After that, things get progressively weirder as they are led to a local police station that has been abandoned since the Ottoman Empire. They attempt to find the original police who called for them and things get horrible.

The imagery in this movie was enough to unsettle me greatly. Not only is there super-graphic violence, questionable sexual content (not in the slightest erotic, mind you) and human oddities on display; the director has populated the dark corners of his haunted building with blair witch bundles of wire and meat, detailed illustrations on the walls of evil creatures doing evil things and short flashes of writhing bodies in tatters and metal. This whole movie is like a Clive Barker wet dream. In terms of horror, this is about as horrific as things get. Like the movie Audition, I've seen things I can't unsee here and, like that movie, I have chosen to watch it twice. That is pretty much my limit for this one.

I can't recommend this except to hardcore gore and depravity fans. There is so much artfully done here that I remain impressed with it as a movie even if I never want to watch a frame of it again. Just, watch at your own risk.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Day 139: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Finally got around to seeing this from my list of movies I wanted to see last year. I feel like I am one of the few people who liked the original Cloverfield so I was pretty stoked to see what this one offered. It was...different.

The story follows Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle. She leaves her boyfriend/fiance and gets into a car wreck in the boonies of Louisiana. She awakens in a cell type room with no windows and finds herself the prisoner of John Goodman. Goodman explains that the end of the world is happening outside the bunker they are in. Someone has attacked and now the air is contaminated, deadly to anyone outside. He says they have to wait two years before the air clears. Michelle, as you can imagine, is not psyched to hear this. The first act is her struggling to escape Howard (Goodman) with the occasional help of Emmett, a fellow survivor who helped Howard build the shelter. By the end of act one, Michelle is convinced something messed up is happening outside and then the real horror begins.

This three hander is deftly played on all sides. As Michelle is our audience surrogate, we don't know who to trust and to what extent. Howard seems to be in mourning over the loss of his daughter, but there is something creepy about it, too. The uneasy alliance all three build over time is mesmerizing to watch but, of course, things go south. I won't say anything about the main plot but you will eventually get to see what is going on outside the bunker and that is somehow even batshit crazier than what is happening inside the bunker.

Besides one fantastical element, this movie has no connection to the original Cloverfield. Someone suggested that this might become a series like The Twilight Zone. Between watching this and Split recently, it did feel very Shylamanish. This isn't going to change your world or offer any profound truths but there are worse ways to spend two hours. I would give this a C+.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Day 138: Let the Right One In

Or as I call it, Let the Left One Out (hehehe). It is sometimes harder to write about these good horror movies than it is to tear into an inept one. How many ways can I heap superlatives on these little gems before it gets stale? Let's find out.

Let the Right One In is all about a bullied boy in Scandinavia who befriends a mysterious...girl and her adult watcher, who pretends to be her dad. We quickly learn the girl is a vampire and the man pretending to be her father abducts locals to provide her with blood. When he screws up a couple of missions, she quickly turns desperate and bestial even as she forms this tender bond with the bullied young man. Bad things happen.

Essentially, this is a very jacked up coming of age story. The unfortunate little boy has chosen a vampire as his first crush and things can only get complicated from there. There is some gruesome violence as well as some unintentionally funny cgi work with cats going nuts on vampires. This modest little movie works best in the quiet moments, between the killings. The ending is at turns glorious and heartbreaking. I love this little movie but it isn't for everyone. For people sensitive to seeing children in extreme violence or early (mostly confused) sexuality, this movie isn't for you. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Day 137: Carnage Park

Mickey Keating has made a splash in the indie horror scene over the past couple of years. I first saw his movie Darling, which I thought was a little derivative and pretentious. Then I saw Carnage Park, which I enjoyed but others around me hated. On my own, I sought out his movie Pod, which I think is pretty great but I am unsure what others would think. So, as always, your mileage may vary.

The movie starts pretty grindhouse cool with a guy named Scorpion Joe and his buddy, Lenny, robbing a small bank. There are lots of freeze frames and graphics introducing the characters. It all has a very 70s vibe and works well as homage. After the guys take a customer named Vivian hostage (Keating's apparent muse, Ashley Bell), they wander into private desert property where Lenny succumbs to injuries obtained at the robbery. Scorpion Joe and Vivian then run afoul of the land owner and the real horror begins.

(SPOILER WARNING) I will say, I was a little disappointed in the build-up of Joe as a character only to have him dispatched very early in the movie. The whole first half hour seems to be a fake out since the real meat of the movie is Vivian versus Wyatt, a crazed Pat Healy. (END SPOILERS) Healy does a great job as the nutcase who has turned his property into hunting grounds. There is plenty of evidence of past visitors and where they made their stands. If there is a complaint I have about the premise, it is that there is so much potential in the set-up that never really pays off. I expected more traps or clever tableaus from Wyatt but he pretty much only has two tricks up his sleeve.

Overall, this is a solid survival horror movie. The performance are strong and the set design is creepy. Like I said, the biggest disappointment to me was wasted potential. My friends who saw it with me found it very boring and borderline irredeemable as entertainment. Let me know what you think if you see it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day 136: May

Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis can both thank this movie as being their breakthrough in the world of horror. I have only seen it once but I remember it disturbing me greatly.

May (Bettis) is a woman with a lazy eye who has always had problems making friends. She has a doll named Suzie that her mother made for her to keep her company. When she gets the lazy eye corrected, she soon draws the attention of both Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris in a sort of feast or famine paradigm. When things slowly but surely go wrong with both of her admirers, May is left to her own devices to figure out how to make new friends. Things go very, very badly for several people and the ending is truly horrific.

This low budget, indie horror is quite good at setting the world May lives in and making us see the world the way she does. There are only so many years of social neglect a person can endure without going a little crazy and May has passed that date by a good half decade. Her awkwardness creates some cringe comedy and later some just plain cringes. Bettis does a great job of making her lone weirdo feel real. Faris, in a rare non-comedic role, is very good as the lesbian pursuer of May's straight but lonely protagonist. Jeremy Sisto plays a decent guy who probably would have gone for May if she hadn't gone all weird after seeing his movie.

For fans of psychological horror that turns into real horror, you should check out May. It isn't flashy or thrill-a-minute, but it will get under your skin.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Day 135: Misery

One of the more successful Stephen King adaptations, I haven't seen this one in many a year but I remember being fond of it.

For those who don't know, a writer has just announced that he will be killing off his most beloved character. He is soon after taken prisoner/helped out by one of his biggest fans who tortures him into writing the character back to life. King has always kept one eye on obsessive fans and this movie actually has a little something to say about how people feel like they own an artist just because they consume his art.

James Caan does a great job as the put upon writer here. He is just gruff enough to be dangerously dismissive to his fans while out in the world but vulnerable enough to sell his terror at the various things Kathy Bates inflicts him with. Speaking of Bates, her portrayal of Annie Wilkes is pretty bone-chilling here. She delivers on being a strong physical presence while coming off as sweet natured (most of the time). Her academy award for this movie makes it the only Stephen King adaptation to win an oscar (that's right even, Shawshank didn't win one).

The cat and mouse games are well directed by Rob Reiner, who was more known for comedies at the time. If you like small cast productions and haven't seen this, you should check it out.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Day 134: Alien

One of the many projects that emerged from the aborted attempt to do Dune in the 1970s, Alien still stands as the pinnacle of sci-fi horror. Despite being almost 40 years old, the movie still holds up well as a vision of the future.

The premise is right out of Halloween or Friday the 13th, isolate a mixed group of people somewhere and introduce a deadly killing machine. Sit back and watch the magic happen. In this case, the mixed group is a team of workers who intercept a distress signal on their way home through space and decide to investigate. Once at the source of the distress, they pick up a new passenger in the form of a slimy little creature who has attached itself to one of the crew's faces. You've all seen the scene with the alien bursting out of the man's chest. It quickly grows up and causes more problems for the crew. The remaining crew gets picked off one by one and even has to deal with an internal threat in their ranks.

This is a great slow-burn horror. The first hour is mood setting and character development. By the time the alien is moving through the shadows and killing the crew, you have gotten to know and even like a few of them. Also, like Jaws, this movie works because of how little they show the alien. Designed by H.R. Giger and his nightmare visions, the alien is all curves and points but the less we see of it, the scarier it looks in our minds. Great performances by Tom Skeritt, Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, and Harry Dean Stanton really bring the danger to life.

The sequel might have kicked more ass but the original is still my platonic ideal of horror in space.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Day 133: Kill List

Ben Wheatley has been a problematic director for me. An indie darling, whom my friends are fond of, has produced a couple of movies (A Field in England and High Rise) that didn't really click for me. I have never seen Sightseers, which seems to be a fan favorite but I decided to go back to his breakout movie, Kill List, and see what was up.

To say this is a dark movie is understating it. An out-of-work soldier becomes a hitman with his best friend and the two of them have to work their way down the titular kill list. So far, so Pulp Fiction. However, there are things happening almost subliminally that turn this into a horror movie. The best friend (Gal) brings his girlfriend (Fiona) around to meet Jay (our main character) and his wife, Shel.  Fiona leaves a strange mark hidden in Jay's bathroom and dumps Gal the next day. However, she keeps turning up in odd places for Jay to encounter. Then, there is the matter of sealing the deal with a blood oath that turns into too deep a cut on Jay's palm. And then there is the creepy way everyone they kill says "Thank You" right before they do it.

The violence in this is pretty extreme with hammers, knives, guns and walls being used to batter and demolish people. This isn't the shockingly funny way John Travolta blows Phil LaMar's head off in Pulp Fiction, this is the brutalizing violence that comes from a disturbed place inside Jay. As they get deeper into the Kill List, Gal starts getting suspicious that the victims seem to know more about their killers than the other way around. Everywhere Jay turns, it seems like someone is gently pushing him to lose more and more control.

Although I saw the ending coming from miles away, it doesn't make it less effective. Once the horror kicks in, Wheatley abandons a classic narrative for more and more jarring jump cuts, disorienting the audience in regards to time and space.

If you can handle brutal violence and you like occult movies, check this out.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Day 132: Split

This was my first time seeing an M. Night Shyamalan movie since The Village pissed me off lo those many years ago. I already knew about the surprise ending but I had been hearing good things and so decided to go.

The story is that three girls are leaving a mall when they get abducted by a man with multiple personalities. They are taken to an undisclosed location (that isn't revealed until the very end but that is pretty easy to guess) where they are held in a small stone room for the arrival of something called The Beast. Casey, the main character (played by the young woman from The Witch), quickly figures out the multiple identities of her captor and waits for a strong move to make. The other two girls are split between helpless fear and occasional bravery. The abductor, whose real name is Kevin, tries to spin damage control from his rapidly fraying roster of 23 to 24 personalities. There is Dennis, the guy who gets things done but is OCD and a bit of a perv; Patricia, the classy lady who believes in the gospel of the Beast; Hedwig, a nine year old who wants to be liked despite being kind of a dumbass; and Barry, the personality most allowed free reign as he is just a fashion designer.

James McAvoy does an excellent job in this movie, portraying each personality with a different voice and body language. He even has to pull the double duty of having one personality imitate another. He gets some CGI help by the end but before the arrival of The Beast, he is making the story work through sheer physicality. Anya Taylor-Joy captures the wounded intelligence of a teenage girl who has already lived through some messed up stuff before being locked in this room. Despite her tough talk and street smarts, she is still paralyzed with fear from time to time. So, strong performances and, I have to admit, some top notch suspense directing, add up to a very fun time in the theater.

I can't even really say who this movie is for. There is some gore, but not much. There is a lot of terrorizing but just as often, the girls get chances to turn the tables. If you like a good psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, check it out.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Day 131: Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods maybe my favorite horror movie from the past 10 years if only because it ties all horror movies into a nice little package, disposes of the package and then challenges us to make something new. Like an ambitious historian, this movie tries to tie every horror movie together under one mythology and I think it works very well.

The basic plot is that a group of college students go to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of relaxation. Almost immediately, we know something else is going on as we keep cutting to two middle-aged guys (played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who are just passing time and seemingly know more about what the weekend has in store than the kids themselves. A creepy local gives a vague warning about the cabin, the characters find themselves falling into roles they don't inhabit back home and an eagle crashes into a force field the group passes on their way to the cabin. Things are about to get weird.

The less you know about this movie going in, the more fun it is. What I've already described is pretty spoiler heavy but just know, there are lots of turns in the plot still ahead once the crew gets to the cabin. The script is funny and colors within the lines enough to work as real horror once the evil starts attacking our heroes. The entire third act is so batshit insane, I can't go into it but it is a lot of fun.

If you love horror and want to see even old movies in a fresh light, check this out.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Day 130: Diary of the Dead

This movie is and the fifth installment in George Romero's zombie outbreak series (see Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead) and the first to crossover with the found footage genre of horror.

After a prologue with some newsmen becoming zombie chow, we follow a group of film students as they try to make their own horror movie. Unfortunately, the zombie apocalypse breaks out and the group move from goal to goal hoping to find a safe place or rescue some loved ones. Much like 28 Days Later, this movie goes out of its way to portray the National Guard as corrupt during a time of civil crisis. Romero has always used the zombie genre to speak to weaknesses he sees in society (racism, consumerism, militarism, elitism) and this one takes a poke at what news sources would be trustworthy in a zombie outbreak (blogs) as well as how detached we get looking at the world through camera lenses instead of experiencing life in person. It is a decent message and the movie has some solid horror.

I liked this one best of the second Dead trilogy (part three is Survival of the Dead) but it still pales next to classics like Dawn of the Dead. The found footage aspect lends it some immediacy but also strains credulity as people keep filming long after they should have stopped.

For zombie fans or Romero fans who somehow missed it, check it out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Day 129: The ABCs of Death 2

One thing I can say about anthology movies is that there is usually something in them to recommend them. Unlike some other ones (like V/H/S), the ABCs of Death series doesn't overstay its welcome. Every bit has to be rapid fire because you don't want the movie to last six hours. 26 shorts in a normal run time is tough to pull off but I also think it disciplines the filmmakers to try harder.

I'm not going through all 26 short films but I will discuss a few I liked. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado directed the F movie, Falling. It is about an Israeli paratrooper caught in a tree behind enemy lines who is found by an arab young man. While some of the imagery is horrific, the main story is equally dark and hopeful. I felt like this pulled off a good balancing act.

O is for Ochlocracy is all about a society that has been cured of a zombie outbreak. Now, everyone who would be a hero in a zombie movie is under arrest for murdering innocent people who could have been cured. Whoops. Hajime Ohata directed this one that is funny and just depressing enough.

Really, the whole movie is much better balanced than the first one. It has some animation that works well (including Bill Plympton) and some horror-comedy bits that are nice (the E and P segments). While the first one had a few that really disturbed me, this one focuses more on solid storytelling. If you like anthologies, I would say check it out.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Day 128: Teeth

For International Women's Day I figured, what better movie to do than Teeth?

In this film, a young girl committed to abstinence finds that, in moments of unwanted sexual contact with her vagina, she can grow teeth to sever whatever is stuck inside of her. As you can imagine, much horror ensues.

When I first watched this, I thought it was a little broad to have every single guy the main girl meets be a predator of some kind. From the hot guy in her youth group to the local gynecologist to her own stepbrother, every guy just wants to have sex with this girl. Since seeing this, I have come to realize that, for some women, this is indeed the threat of daily life. Feeling unsafe is the status quo and being some horny idiot's prey is the default setting. This movie aims for empowerment via horror and I think it works quite well. As a guy, I can think of nothing more horrific than thinking you are about to engage in intercourse and then having teeth bite through your member. Of course, I can't imagine forcing someone into sex, so I guess I am safe from any vagina dentata out there.

Even if the scenario seems far fetched, the conversation it starts is helpful. Respect for women seems to wax and wane depending on the cultural climate and I hope there are more movies like this that demonstrate the horror of being a woman in a rape culture (but that do so in a clever and entertaining way like this one, no need to get preachy).

If you like your horror with a side of social conscience, check this out. If you are squeamish about dong damage, maybe give it a pass.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Day 127: 28 Days Later

This movie is considered a classic of modern horror and gave us the "fast zombie" movement that took hold in the early 2000s. Danny Boyle is a great director and this movie has much to recommend it but I actually like the sequel more.

For those who don't know, this is about Cillian Murphy waking up after being in a coma and finding that the world has turned to shit due to a "rage virus" that is transmitted through bites and blood. Murphy wandering the deserted streets of London is iconic and haunting, I must admit. He eventually finds other survivors and they make their way out of London and into the countryside where they run into a paramilitary force that has created a "safe zone" holding out the infected.

I feel like the hoariest trope in horror movies is the idea that we are the monsters. What starts as a pretty great zombie survival movie turns into a very different film when the survivors meet up with the military guys who are into raping and being evil. I feel like other movies have made this argument more subtly and with more finesse. The entire third act at the military compound feels very "been there, done that" when we have a whole new mythology to explore. The sequel follows a family whose father becomes infected and seems to always be leading the attack on his children as the movie goes on. The emotional underpinning and family dynamics just make that story stronger than another, men abuse power scenario. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

A must-see of the zombie genre.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Day 126: Severed

Every now and then I want to take a break from horror movies and write about another aspect of horror. In this case, Horror comics I love. Severed was a 2012 seven issue series written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Scott Tuft that was published by Image comics.

The series follows the adventures of a 12-year old named Jack Garron as he searches for his father through the backroads of 1916 America. He runs into a traveling buddy named Sam as well as a man named Fisher, who seems a little too eager to help the boy on his way. I can't write too much without giving away plot twists and details but, suffice it to say, Fisher is more than he seems and things get pretty brutal for the traveling buddies before it is all over.

Tuft does a great job with the grimy realism of the hobo lifestyle. His fluid lines draw the eye to exactly the point where it sometimes doesn't want to go. Snyder, the masterful writer of American Vampire, knows a thing or two about horror and sets up some brilliant setpieces. Just because the main characters are children, it doesn't mean horrible things can't happen to them.

If you can handle comic book horror, I would highly recommend Severed in trade paperback.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Day 125: Freaks

This horror classic was directed by Tod Browning, who also helmed the original Dracula. Freaks, in my opinion, still holds up to the test of time.

The story is set at a traveling circus where Browning cast real-life freakshow performers as his characters. There is a rich little person named Hans, who is madly in love with Cleopatra, a trapeze artist. Hans asks Cleopatra to marry him and she cooks up a scheme with her lover, the strongman Hercules, to take all of Hans' money with the old "marry and murder" routine. Things go badly for her.

It is still  unsettling to see the pinheads or the human worm in this movie and know that none of this is make-up or special effects. The circus community rallies around Hans once Cleopatra's scheme is discovered and the final shots, of various freaks crawling and slithering through rain-slicked grass and mud towards a bad guy's hiding place is still one of the most disturbing images caught on film.

Browning drew from his real life to make this movie but it kind of ruined his career. Reviews were unkind and people described it as revolting. It was banned in the UK for 30 years after its release. You can see it pretty much anytime and I would still recommend it.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Day 124: Army of Darkness

Even more so than The Picture of Dorian Gray, I struggle to call this a horror movie despite it being filled with monsters, skeletons, evil duplicates and a book of the dead. Unlike Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 (the movies that precede this one in the series), Army of Darkness functions as almost pure entertainment and, I would argue, never comes close to even being creepy.

In this installment of the series, Ash has been sucked into medieval times where he lands in a court of Lord Arthur (ahem). He proceeds to help fight off the deadites that are infesting the time period as he tries to find a way back to the present. A pretty simple plot, all told.

The fun is in Campbell's delivery and the slapstick gore that surrounds him whenever he fights a monster. From battling a witch in an underground cavern to fighting off tiny replicas of himself, he always seems to be having fun and it is infectious to the viewer. The stakes never seem to get particularly high (except the end of the world, but this being a time travel story, we pretty much know everything works out ok) so it is hard to feel tension or, especially, fear. I don't think this matters to director Sam Raimi as much as giving his audience a fun time. And this delivers with boomsticks and chainsaw hands galore.

If you've seen the first two, you should definitely see this one. If you haven't seen the first two, why would you start here?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Day 123: Scream 2

I like how my random topic generator gets me to the sequels before the originals. Scream 2 was the last movie I liked in the franchise and I can trace the exact moment I stopped liking them...the death of a specific character I won't spoil here in case you haven't seen it.

The plot is that Neve Campbell and the few survivors of the first movie have moved on with their lives. Campbell's Syd is in college and studying theater. The movie opens with two guest stars (Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett) getting murdered at the premiere of Stab, the movie based on the events in Scream. Everything is bigger, bolder and a little more fun as Randy (a never-better Jamie Kennedy) explains how sequels work as we watch those rules unfold. Neve once again finds herself locked in deadly combat with the Ghostface killer but is it one of the original survivors or one of her new friends doing the killing?

This is the series that brought meta-commentary to horror. While the characters don't go so far as to know they are movie characters, they do know they have movie characters based on them (which is super close). Like the superior Cabin in the Woods, these movies seem to want to clear the way for new types of stories. By pointing out the tropes and cliches, I have to believe Craven was saying, "Let's do better than this." Unfortunately, the only lesson learned is that, sometimes, the characters in horror movies make mention to the fact that it seems like they are in a horror movie. To be fair, Craven did hedge his bets by exploiting those same cliches he was calling out.

If you haven't seen the first one, for god's sake, don't watch this one. If you have seen the first one, watch this one and call it a day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Day 122: Rosemary's Baby

An all-time classic, I doubt I'm going to say anything about this you haven't heard before.

For those who haven't seen it, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into a new apartment (played on the exterior by the Dakota apartments where John Lennon was killed). They find their new neighbors very intrusive and, when one mysteriously dies, Rosemary starts getting concerned that they might not be the sweet collection of old eccentrics they claim to be. The real fun starts when Rosemary becomes pregnant after a night of nightmarish hallucinations (or were they?) and begins to believe that her neighbors are part of an evil cult who want to hurt the baby.

There is some great paranoia here, mixed with just the right amount of explaining away weird behavior. Charles Grodin plays a concerned doctor, John Cassavetes is the husband who finds his career taking off after making some deal with the neighbors, and Mia Farrow is excellent as the woman driving herself to the brink of madness. I'm glad this randomly turned up as close to Get Out as it does because they both explore some themes of "who can you trust?" that turn out very differently. All the performances ride that line between "creepy" and "weird but harmless." Polanski (problematic man at best) directs the crap out of this, allowing just enough of the viewer's imagination to creep in to scare yourself. For example, I could swear we see the baby at the end but, in reality, I don't think we do. I have a strong image of it in my mind, however (just like the robbery from Reservoir Dogs we never see).

I don't want to give too much away in case you've never seen it but I would like to sometime take a look at conspiracy in narrative (whether real or imagined). As is, I will just say, check it out.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Day 121: Get Out

Finally doing a review of a new movie. If you are reading this you probably already know that this movie is the directorial effort of Jordan Peele, from Key and Peele. It has some good laughs but is a straight up horror/thriller before it is all over.

A black photographer named Chris is heading to the woods for the weekend to visit his white girlfriend's family for the first time. He has anxiety that they will not react well to the interracial aspect. His girlfriend assures him they are liberal and fine with it. On the way, they hit a deer (which we don't get the significance of until later), deal with a rude state trooper and argue about Chris's smoking habit. Once the action settles at the family home, things get creepy. There is a handyman and a maid who are both just a little too cheerful and accommodating. There is a brother who is a little too into MMA. When the parents throw a party and invite scores of white people who ask weird and inappropriate questions of Chris, things get extra shady. And did I mention the mom of the family hypnotizes him without his consent to get his mind off cigarettes? Even if nothing sinister were going on, this would be a hellish weekend for our main character.

Once the big reveal happens, we get some solid horror action and some revelations that make you want to rewatch the whole movie. There are solid laughs (thanks mostly to Chris's TSA friend who gets suspicious of the whole enterprise) and some top notch acting from Daniel Kaluuya, Bradley Cooper, Katherine Keener as well as the rest of the cast. 

Seeing this with a good crowd may be the key to getting the most from it but I would put this at a solid B, maybe B+.