Friday, April 5, 2013
Fede Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead is probably closest to Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn Of The Dead remake in style and execution. Both films take a cherished low-budget classic and, while sticking fairly close to the setups of their predecessors, they cycle in new characters and ramp up the action/blood/intensity for a faster, meanier, gorier approach. In our current heyday of PG-13 horror and toothless, unimaginative spook-em-ups, the commitment these filmmakers show to bloody mayhem is welcome, but the new model Evil Dead, like Snyder’s Dawn before it, still only manages to be occasionally diverting, but ultimately disposable. In both cases, there’s no substitute for the cheapo charm of the original. Evil Dead 2013 (which was produced by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell) starts off with an intriguing but confusing prologue—intriguing, because it hints at a broader mythology for this version of the story, but confusing because it never bothers to deliver on it. We see the fiery conclusion of one girl’s demonic possession, taking place in the basement of the series’ now-familiar cabin in the woods. Then, some time later, a group of five friends arrive at the cabin—not for a weekend of hard partying in the usual horror-film tradition, but so that drug-addicted Mia (Jane Levy) can dry out in the company of her concerned pals. The gang decides that, no matter what she says or does, Mia will not be allowed to leave the woods until the weekend is over and she’s gone completely cold turkey. This promising angle, which ensures that the kids actually have a good reason to stay in the cabin when things get weird, is ditched all too quickly since Mia is the first to fall under the spell of what lurks within the woods (an evil unleashed when one of the gang finds a creepy book bound up in barb wire and, of course, proceeds to read from it). At first, Mia’s increasingly crazed behaviour is dismissed as symptoms of drug withdrawal, but it isn’t long before the demonic infection spreads to the others, leading to an outbreak of self-mutilation, trash-talking, and all manner of goo and glop spewing out of character’s faces. You have to admire how the new Evil Dead gleefully goes for the gross-out (largely achieved through practical effects rather than CGI, always a plus. Apparently several cuts were made to ensure an R rating, but even so, this has got to be the bloodiest horror flick to get a wide release in quite some time. That being said, beyond the troubled family history between Mia and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), the characters are so thinly drawn that it’s hard to get emotionally involved when they all start cutting each other into bloody chunks. I kept forgetting that one character, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), was even in the movie. I can’t imagine that her character had much description in the screenplay beyond “blonde hair/David’s girlfriend”, if her total lack of personality traits of any kind is any indication. The standout in the cast, by way of default, is Lou Taylor Pucci’s Eric, if only because hipster fashion has come around again to the point that his now-weirdly-contemporary plaid shirt, long hair, and Chief Brody-sized eyeglasses make him look like…the victim in an early 1980s horror movie, appropriately enough. But beyond the rehab angle and the demonic, candle-headed boss beast in the demonic tome (who, sadly, never appears beyond the blood-printed page), Evil Dead doesn’t bring enough new to the table. The evil spirits are given a face this time, in the form of the ghoulish girl from the prologue, but this has the weird effect of making the threat seem smaller rather than bigger (if you can defeat the evil by chopping it into pieces with a chainsaw, it’s really not all that insurmountable, is it?). One can only assume that the mythology teased out by screenwriters Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody is dropped in to tantalize viewers back for an inevitable sequel, which is exactly the kind of breadcrumb-dropping storytelling cheat that made Prometheus such a stinker last year. Far too much of genre filmmaking these days is about luring viewers in with the promise of something new, and then, in the wake of a pile of unanswered questions, winkingly suggesting that you hang in there for Part II. Commendable for its carnage, but forgettable due to its flimsiness, Evil Dead 2013 feels regrettably incomplete and, as such, as unnecessary as most other horror remakes. Give me Sam Raimi chasing Bruce Campbell around the forest with a camera any day of the week.
Monday, April 1, 2013
My folks had my girlfriend Hillary and I out for Easter dinner yesterday, and they graciously allowed me to rummage through their old collection of 45 RPM records and take whichever ones caught my eye. Y'see, they don't have a working record player anymore, and we're reasonably new to the whole vinyl collecting craze, so I guess they figured all these singles would have a better home with us than where they were--in a big pile underneath the china hutch. Needless to say, it was a real treasure trove of campy singles that probably hadn't been spun in about thirty years, like the theme to The Greatest American Hero (or, if you prefer, George Costanza's answering machine greeting), and "General Hospi-tale", a late disco/early rap novelty song designed to cash in on the Luke & Laura-era General Hospital craze of 1981. There were also some cool finds that didn't mean much to me as a kid but are favourites now, like Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn" (AKA the song that plays at the end of the little-seen but terrific Patton Oswalt movie Big Fan), and The Monkees' "Goin' Down" (which was featured in a great meth-making montage on the last season of Breaking Bad). But strangest of all, there seemed to be a recurring strain of lycanthropy-themed cuts in there too...or maybe that's just my werewolf-obsessed brain connecting the dots. You be the judge. First of all, there was the above number. Most people know the Five Man Electrical Band as the act behind the counterculture anthem "Signs", but to me, they will always be the guys who, for whatever reason, recorded this chilling tale of shapeshifting and sheep slaughter. Okay, maybe not quite chilling, but as a kid, I was pretty fascinated with the idea that anyone would record a pop song about such a terrifying subject. From the ominous opening ("Mama said/there's something weird 'bout Billy...") to the shrill, screamy chorus ("Is it any wonder we hate to see the sun go dooooown..."), the song is like a cool little horror movie in miniature. For the record, I still like it better than "Signs". And then there was this. It's no secret that An American Werewolf In London is one of my all-time favourite horror flicks, and I'm sure that at some point I must have become aware that its star, David Naughton, was a pop singer. But I must have repressed that memory, because this sure came as a shock to me. It's a pretty silly, but not entirely un-catchy, disco number, but I feel like the future David Kessler must have known that pop stardom wasn't in the cards. Considering that the B-side is the forgettable reprise "Still Makin' It", I think he had a pretty good idea of his inevitable one-hit wonder status. And finally, not really a werewolf song, but its inclusion in An American Werewolf In London makes for a nice little trilogy here. Nearly twenty years ago, I created a minicomic about a werewolf that took its name from this song, and, my love for CCR aside, I'll always have a soft spot for this song because of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go fire up the record player and listen to Jeannie C. Riley sing "Harper Valley PTA" one more time.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
The current found-footage horror craze began in 1999 with the still-effective The Blair Witch Project, a movie that ditched its videotaped format for a more traditional narrative with its first (and mercifully, only) sequel, the dreadful Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. One of the more moderately successful found-footage knockoffs, 2010's The Last Exorcism, loses the shaky, handheld camera for its sequel as well. The cinematic conceit of a camera crew capturing an exorcism as it's being performed on a naive, demon-possessed farm girl was the chief obstacle to the original Last Exorcism being a better film, I thought. A potentially interesting third-act twist gave way to a hasty, unfulfilling wrap-up, since the story reached a point where no one in their right mind would still be holding a camera or a boom mike--they'd be running for their lives instead. The Last Exorcism Part II (a title only slightly less laughable than, say, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) may have jettisoned one overused trend, but it replaces it with an even more annoying one. Like last month's Dark Skies, this is another movie that features eighty or so minutes of frustratingly vague buildup, followed by ten minutes of confusing, mostly offscreen mayhem, followed quickly by the end credits...and, presumably, another installment to come. The movie opens somewhat promisingly as Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) mysteriously appears in a New Orleans couple's home, dirty, dishevelled, and with no memory of what happened to her in the first film. I can relate--I haven't seen it since it was first released, and other than a Rosemary's Baby-style twist about a cult that wanted the baby she had inside her, it's kind of a blur, and the new film doesn't do a lot to explain it either. Anyway, Nell winds up in a home for troubled girls, where she is set up with a job cleaning rooms in a hotel. The shy, repressed young girl begins to open up and make friends, first with the other girls in the home and later with a co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark--Bruce Willis' kid from Unbreakable, all grown up). However, it's not long before Nell starts being tormented by weird phone calls, the ghost of her father, and out-of-focus figures lurking in the background, and her new life starts to unravel when clips of her exorcism are found by her housemates on YouTube (begging the annoyingly unanswered question--who exactly uploaded the footage?). The demon Abalam is not done with her yet, it seems, and a mysterious (and frankly, pretty incompetent) organization of do-gooders takes one last stab at purging Nell of her infernal suitor. William Friedkin's classic original The Exorcist turns 40 this year, and the fact that people are still ripping it off today is a testament to that film's power. Even though the idea of a loved one suddenly acting like a hostile, dangerous stranger is a scary idea, none of the annual knockoffs really ever seem to bring much new to the table. The original Last Exorcism at least tried to meld it with the found-footage trend, but the sequel doesn't even have that going for it. Ashley Bell, with her strangely old/young features, is effective and sympathetic, but the first film also had Patrick Fabian as the charming, funny priest who tries to save her. No one else in this film leaves much of an impression, and Bell can only do so much on her own. Director Ed Gass-Donnelly gives it his best shot, with lots of attempts to convey a creepy, paranoiac atmosphere during brightly-lit afternoon scenes, but he falls back too much on the ol' "made ya jump" combination of two or three frames of something scary undercut by a loud noise. As in the first movie, Nell has a weird fondness for red Doc Martens, but I'm not quite sure what they're supposed to be a symbol for. Tempation? Materialism? An out-of-place reference to The Wizard Of Oz? Once again, producer Eli Roth proves himself to be a canny capitalist, making this movie on the cheap for a quick turnaround on his investment (the movie already made its budget back on a still-lackluster opening weekend of $7 million), but too many mediocre movies like this with his name on them can only hurt his legacy as a horror icon. I've still got high hopes for Roth's upcoming Netflix series Hemlock Grove (debuting this April), but I hope and pray that this Exorcism truly is his last.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
In the sleepy slump period between the end of Oscar Season and the beginning of Summer Blockbuster Season, you can always count on at least one demon possession thriller hitting the multiplexes. March already has one such release--the Eli Roth-produced Last Exorcism Part II--but writer-director Scott Stewart's new alien abduction flick Dark Skies could just as easily fall into this same category. The sinister alien invaders who torment the film's family might as well just be demons from hell, given their penchant for ominous tomfoolery and nightly visitations. The result is a fairly shameless cross between Poltergeist and Signs (PolterSigns?) with a healthy dash of the Paranormal Activity franchise thrown in for good measure. The Barrett family--realtor mom Lacy (Keri Russell), out-of-work architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton), teenaged Jesse (Dakota Goyo), and youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett)--are an average family that finds itself at the mercy of all sorts of creepy goings-on, both in the daytime and after dark. Sam starts spacing out weirdly, shrieking in a high-pitched squeal, publicly wetting himself, and exhibiting weird bruises on his body. Lacy witnesses a mass avian suicide of Birdemic proportions and starts smacking her head into a window. Daniel sleepwalks out into the yard in the middle of the night, and Lacy finds him making an "O" face while staring off into nothing. And Jesse experiences strange electrical disturbances, like streetlights inexplicably going out one by one as he bikes home. Objects are piled up mysteriously in the kitchen Poltergeist-style, and all the family photos in the living room go missing. While Daniel sets up an expensive new home-security system (that keeps being mysteriously triggered by nobody, seemingly) and a series of surveillance cameras that go all staticky whenever anything spooky happens, Lacy becomes obsessed with online accounts of alien visitations. She and Daniel meet with a UFO conspiracy nut (J.K. Simmons) who tells them that their youngest son may be targeted for abduction. The Barretts batten down the hatches for a final showdown, not realizing that the alien invaders may in fact have a different target in mind. Dark Skies does its best to tap into certain societal anxieties that would provide an interesting spine to a better story; the family's money woes and Daniel's job search take up a lot of screen time, as does a subplot about the bad influence of an older boy Jesse hangs out with, not to mention the fact that the suspicious bruises on Sam's torso make the Barrett parents into neighbourhood pariahs. However, all these subplots really do is try and divert attention away from the fact that Dark Skies doesn't have an original idea in its head. Why else would the filmmakers spend so much screen time on Daniel's largely unsuccessful job hunt, only to have him find employment late in the second act and never bring it up again? Why devote so many scenes to Jesse and his oafish pal getting into trouble when they ultimately have no real bearing on the larger plot? Former VFX artist Scott Stewart sets the scene nicely--Dark Skies is a well-shot, confidently directed film--but most of the running time is devoted to trying to make us care about the characters, all of which is worthless without a satisfactory predicament to put them in. The film's Big Twist is incredibly obvious, and a brief postscript shows the remaining family members putting the pieces together three months too late to do anything about it. Dark Skies wants you to look to the skies in fear, but it'll most likely have you looking at your watch.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Friday, January 18, 2013
from a short film by the Muschiettis, and the strain in adapting a two-and-a-half minute short to feature length is visible. It’s a slow-moving film, with plenty of lingering shots of half-open doors and lonely hallways. Sometimes, this approach works; Mama is one of those rare films that can find the quiet eeriness in a big house in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a scene early on where the girls’ bedroom is visible in the foreground, and Annabel can be seen doing laundry at the end of the hall. It looks as though the girls are playing with each other—Lilly is seen tugging at one end of a blanket—but then, Victoria appears at the end of the hall near the laundry room. Who is tugging on the other end of that blanket? we wonder, as Annabel unknowingly goes about her business. But any momentum gained by these early scenes is slowed down by a dull subplot where the psychiatrist (Daniel Kash, a dead ringer for Tony Shalhoub) tries to piece together the backstory behind the mysterious ghostly figure. When “Mama" does finally make her startling full appearance, it’s a hackles-raising tour de force—the spectral, spider-limbed hag has a head full of hair that always appears to be floating as though in water, and can race across a room like a sped-up video image (the unbroken shot that precedes her entrance is impressive; the entire scene is pretty much a remake of the original short film). But the movie quickly falls apart in the third act, as it becomes worn down by a series of unlikely coincidences and sloppy last-second voiceovers designed to smooth over the bumpy plot. The PG-13 rated film opts for chills over gore, which is fine, but after awhile the logy pacing will make you sleepy. Strong performances from Chastain, Coster-Waldau, and especially Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse (as Victoria and Lilly, respectively), combined with a handful of effective scares keep Mama from becoming a complete snooze, but that kind of faint praise is probably not the fairytale outcome Del Toro and the Muschiettis were hoping for.