Tag Archive: Horror


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In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

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Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

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Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

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Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.

So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.

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One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.

What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first  real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.

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And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.

Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.

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I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one theme  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

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Although horror generally doesn’t fall under the purview of films that I attempt to review for this blog (which is a thousands films long list of award-nominated movies), I make a special attempt to sneak them in here when I get the chance. Ever since I was a child, horror has been a guilty pleasure of mine, and the nights I wasn’t able to sleep in elementary school after my parents mistakenly let me watch A Nightmare on Elm Street still stick with me nearly 20 years later. And, over this blog’s two and a half year lifetime, I’ve often mused about what was the greatest horror film ever made. I’ve reviewed classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist, as well as modern greats like Let the Right One In and Paranormal Activity. But after much thought and debate, I think my heart belongs to 2000’s American Psycho.

Perhaps it’s unfair to even discuss American Psycho in rankings of the great horror films because under any real inspection, American Psycho is a horror movie in only the most superficial and surface ways. Because despite the buckets of blood, slasher film tropes, and skin-crawlingly creepy performance from Christian Bale, American Psycho is as much a pitch-black comedy and satire of the greed, narcissism, and general misogyny of the 1980s as it is a retread of the familiar serial killer tale. In fact, were the film meant as a straight horror, it would be mediocre at best because it’s not scary in the slightest, but as a brutal evisceration of the dark underbelly of the Reagan years and Wall Street avarice, American Psycho turns itself into a horrific, dark mirror of the worst sides of American life.

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Patrick Bateman (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Christian Bale) is the embodiment of the 1980s American dream. He’s a young successful Wall Street executive on the rise. He has a perfect body, perfect skin, and the perfect NYC high rise apartment. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), a willing mistress (Samantha Mathis), and absurdly rich friends whose biggest problems in life seem to be whether or not they can get a reservation at the swankiest New York City restaurants and passive aggressively loathing one another over who has the best business card.

But, beneath his perfect exterior, Patrick hides a dark, dark secret. He is a serial killer and an absolutely unhinged one at that. Taking great pride in beating and mutilating prostitutes and the homeless, Patrick unleashes his misogynistic, anti-woman hatred out whenever he can. And when professional jealousy towards one of his colleagues (Jared Leto) ends in a Huey Lewis & the News preceded murder, Patrick finds himself tailed by detective Donald Kimball (Faraway, So Close!‘s Willem Dafoe) who is investigating the man’s disappearance. Will Patrick be able to keep his dark nature in check or will he explode in an orgiastic bloodlust of violence and mayhem?

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Christian Bale has become one of the most consistently intriguing and promising stars of his generation, and alongside the much earlier Empire of the Sun, this was one of the films that put Bale on the map. Alongside his role in The Fighter, I still believe that American Psycho is the premier performance of Bale’s career. Some might be put of by just how bizarre his characterization of Patrick Bateman becomes. This odd combination of yuppie misogyny, misanthropy, and vanity alongside a terrifying milieu of true psychotic behavior seems outrageous at first, but it’s this same horrific otherworld-ness that comes to define how fantastic Bale is at playing men on the fringe of sanity.

Mary Harron’s direction places American Psycho right alongside Wall Street and Bonfire of the Vanities (the book, not the god-awful film) as one of the most accurate satirical looks at the Reagan years. With long, lingering shots of suits, business cards, lavish parties, fancy restaurants, and even fancier apartments, American Psycho has the attention to detail of a Merchant/Ivory film or Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, but within that framework, the film never fails to remind you of the hollowness of these characters’ existence.

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Because American Psycho is a pitch-black comedy/satire, you would be forgiven for thinking that its humor wouldn’t be of the “laugh-out-loud” variety. But it most certainly is. There’s a moment late in the film where Patrick discusses eating the brains of some his victims; I’m not sure if it’s meant to be as funny as I found it, but at that moment, I found myself laughing absolutely hysterically. I was on the verge of tears. And the film is full of little moments of subtle humor that are played just right to elicit big laughs. An ATM machine tells Patrick to feed it stray cats, the insanely narcissistic poses he makes having sex to Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.” The list goes on.

I watched this several nights ago and have been writing the review off and on for a couple days now. Work has kept me from finding the time to actually finish it so I’ll draw this review to a close. I haven’t given this score out in a while. In fact, it’s been three months since I reviewed my last “A+” film, The Master. But American Psycho totally deserves this honor. I am unable to come up with a single flaw to this film, and having watched it dozens of times at this point in my life, it keeps getting better and better. If you want to watch what I believe is the greatest horror film of all time and arguably one of the best satires of the last twenty years, American Psycho is it.

Final Score: A+

 

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I’m going to posit what I’m sure will be an unpopular opinion. The very first The Evil Dead is not a good movie. The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are beloved cult classics because they combined cheesy B-movie horror tropes with a witty self-awareness and intentionally campy sensibilities. Despite some of the revisionist history surrounding the first entry, it is a straight horror film, and it is neither scary nor particularly disturbing nor well-made in the slightest (though it’s clear even then that Bruce Campbell is brilliant and Sam Raimi has a distinct eye as a director). Simply put, 1981’s The Evil Dead isn’t so bad, it’s good (Rocky Horror-style); it’s so bad, it’s almost unwatchable (Valley of the Dolls style). By no stretch of the imagination does 2013’s Evil Dead remake meet the magic of the sequels, but it is also, simply put, a better constructed film than the original even if it ultimately lacks any of the magic that would make the original sequels so brilliant.

I used this metaphor on Facebook after I watched this film Saturday night with my sister and her room mate but it’s good enough that I can use it again. On a “fucked up movie” scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and 10 is Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, the Evil Dead remake clocks in at a solid 9. I have a friend who passed out, like literally fainted, when she saw this movie in theaters. My sister’s roommate started getting nauseous during the film. Gory barely begins to cover this movie, and while I’m a fairly vocal advocate of hating the “torture porn” genre of horror, Evil Dead (which is no way a “torture porn” film; it’s just extremely violent) has to get points for crossing the line not once or twice but like five or six different times. That it manages to mix sadistic violence with the franchise’s established dark humor is very impressive.

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In the litany of reasons why this film is in nearly every technical way better than the first, the characters actually have meaningful backgrounds and personalities in this entry (even if they’re still horror movie thin). Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict who retreats to a cabin in the woods (side note: I really need to review Cabin in the Woods, the best horror movie since Let the Right One In) with her friends and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) so she can kick her habit. True to the original, the group finds a book in the basement of the cabin with warnings to not read it and pictures of demonic rituals on the inside. Ten bucks if you can guess what they do with this book (not really paying anyone). And when demons begin to possess the campers one by one, a bloodbath (often literally in this film’s case) begins.

I really can’t oversell how outrageously violent this movie is. It is at a Rob Zombie or Planet Terror level of cinematic sadism (though it’s not nearly as funny as Planet Terror which is the ultimate B-Movie horror throwback). I am pretty desensitized to violence in any media (whether that’s movies, television, or video games, especially video games) and I was consistently shocked at Evil Dead‘s ability to shock me with it’s level of violence and gore. But, once you get past the initial shock (though, like I said, the film constantly finds new ways to top itself), you realize that the movie becomes almost comically macabre. It enters such a range of over-the-top spectacle that there’s simply no way the film is trying to be serious. It begins to poke fun at the own shock tactics it’s been using. Still, if you have a low tolerance for blood, guts, bones, and brains, stay the hell away from this movie.

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While I have a very low opinion of the original Evil Dead, it did have some things going for it. Bruce Campbell was rough in it, but you knew he was something special despite all of that, and Sam Raimi brought technical and cinematic wizardry on such a tight budget. In virtually every regard, this remake is a better, more structurally sound film than the original, but it never has that magical moment where you think, “man, this could really be something special.” There’s no stand-out element of the film other than just how far they’re willing to push the button (and the test the audience’s stomachs). I spent the whole movie thinking, “This could really use Bruce Campbell.” And, boy, if the movie had more of the comedic undertones of The Evil Dead 2, it could have been a modern cult classic in its own right.

As it is, 2013’s Evil Dead (so far the only film I’ve reviewed from this year; more will arrive I promise) is an astonishingly consistently fucked up movie that gets points for just how much it was able to get under my presumed to be desensitized skin. I’m not much of a horror fan because 95% of it is garbage. Evil Dead is probably garbage but it is entertaining/disturbing/blood-drenched garbage and you have to admire the cajones it takes to push things that far. When so much of the horror genre is brain-dead and formulaic, Evil Dead‘s willingness to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable at least makes it a semi-refreshing alternative to its genre peers.

Final Score: B

(Don’t watch this trailer if you’re sensitive to the issues I’ve outlined. It’s the Red Band trailer.)

 

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I think that every movie lover that grew up in the 90s has a soft spot in their heart for the Scream franchise. None of the sequels were as good as the original (though Scream 4 was a very clever lambasting of modern horror tropes) but even they all had that self-referential, pop-culture obsessed magic that made the first so special. I used to think that part of the reason why they were so good was because of Wes Craven, but as hit or miss as the man has been in his career, I’m actually starting to be willing to give more credit to the franchise’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, and 1998’s sci-fi horror gem The Faculty has confirmed that suspicion.

I say this because even before I knew that The Faculty was written by Kevin Williamson (a fact that I didn’t discover until the end credits rolled), the film felt so similar to Scream yet I had trouble putting my fingers on exactly why. The Faculty is a science fiction horror flick in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not a teen age slasher flick. It’s protagonists aren’t obsessed with horror movies. But, it’s clever self-aware protagonists felt related to Neve Campbell and her kin, and they had their own pop-culture saturated conversations. A film where the heroes weren’t easily replaceable drones, The Faculty was the hip sci-fi equivalent of Scream elevated even more by the tight direction of popcorn auteur Robert Rodriguez.

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After discovering that their high school is ground zero for an alien invasion, a ragtag group of high school students including geek Casey (Elijah Wood), goth Stoakely (Clea Duvall), and drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) decide to take the fight to the faculty of their school, who are quickly being replaced by alien imposters. When they discover that they may be the last pure human beings left in their town, the group has to find the original alien queen and destroy her to save the town but they quickly learn that not everyone in their group is as human as they think.

Much like the first Scream film, what makes The Faculty so immediately enjoyable is the instantly endearing and sympathetic cast. Although it’s quickly apparent that the film’s high school has a lot more problems than just an alien invasion (like almost psychotically violent bullies and cliques), the main characters seem well-rounded and smart. They act the way you’d act if your high school had been invaded by aliens. They aren’t just immediately setting themselves up to die. A key to a good horror film is that you care about the fates of the protagonists, and I found myself invested in seeing if Casey and the rest of the crew would make it to the end of the film.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film has an almost ridiculously deep field of supporting players. I could name all of the future big talent in the film and take up several paragraphs in the process. To wit: Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Laura Harris (Warehouse 13), Famke Jannsen (X-Men), Salma Hayek (Dogma), Piper Laurie (Carrie), Jon Stewart. And those are just the teachers. Well, Laura Harris is one of the kids now that I think about it. Throw in Usher, Jordanna Brewster, Wiley Wiggins, Danny Masterson, and others and this film was veritable who’s who of 90s talent. And they all delivered but special props must be given to Elijah Wood and Laura Harris.

Also, for a film from the late 90s, the special effects in the film aged remarkably well. Although there was occasionally an air of camp in the film, it was always in a fun tongue-in-cheek way and you had to know that certain moments were intentional visual throwbacks to classic sci-fi flicks like The Thing and Species. Very rarely did I find myself pulling out of the film because something was cheesy or particularly fake looking. As a matter of fact, I lost track of the number of times where the film made me say “holy s***” because of one especially gruesome moment or another. The film knew how to use gore to good effect.

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At the end of the day, The Faculty is pure smart popcorn fun. Much like last year’s criminally under-appreciated Cabin in the Woods, The Faculty proved my suspicion that one of the only ways to successfully do horror these days is to verge on deconstructing the whole genre. The Faculty isn’t exactly scary but it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s smart. Razor smart and while it may not have had the lasting cultural impact that Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise had, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that The Faculty is just as good as the first Scream and one of the last great gasps of the 90s horror renaissance.

Final Score: A-

2007’s Paranormal Activity remains one of the rare horror gems of the 2000s, alongside Let the Right One In and The Descent. Grasping the idea that “less is more” for supernatural frights and that an audience’s imagination can be scarier than any gore-obsessed monster or murderer, Paranormal Activity provided real scares and is a shining example of how a miniscule budget indie film can go on to be a massive commercial success without sacrificing good storytelling. And then Paranormal Activity 2 was released and much like The Descent: Part 2, that film showed how poorly 99% of horror sequels fare when stacked up against the original. Too this day, I can remember almost nothing about the plot or characters of the movie even though it’s only been a year since I watched it. I didn’t have high hopes for Paranormal Activity 3 after the first sequel, and although it’s not quite the modern classic that the original film was, the series manages to find its voice again.

Paranormal Activity 3 is a the “origin story” of the Paranormal Activity franchise and provides the context for the events that happen later in the series. And for those worried that trying to actually explain the happenings of the first film would ruin the magic, you can rest easy. They handle it well and with the right amount of ambiguity. We find Katie and Kristi, the two sisters from the first two films, back in their childhoods in the late 80s living with their mother and step-dad in a fancy California home. The stepdad, a wedding videographer, begins noticing strange, unexplained noises and movement in the home, and it’s not long before it’s clear that they’re victims of a haunting. When the youngest daughter, Kristi, begins to have an unhealthy relationship with her imaginary friend Toby, the haunting takes a turn from harmless to violent.

I don’t think the series will ever be able to capture an on-screen chemistry as great as the one that Katie and Micah shared in the original film, but I felt more attached to this film’s family than I did in the sequel, and most of it rests on surprisingly endearing performances from child actors. Even from the adults, Christopher Smith does a warm job as the husband who knows something out of the ordinary is going on. Once again, he doesn’t make the same impression as Micah Sloat from the original, but I actually cared about his fate. But the real star is the scene-stealing performance from Jessica Brown as the young and tortured Kristi. She reminded me of the precocious and adorable Heather O’Rourke from Poltergeist, but with a darker more menacing side when she needed it. Chloe Csengery had less screen time as Katie but she brought the heat when needed as well.

Much like the original, Paranormal Activity 3 is a great example of how to build tension, slowly but surely over the course of a 90 minute film. I thought the second movie never really found its pacing and then ended abruptly with a forced twist at the end. That’s not the case for entry number 3. It finds that magic formula which made the original so special while managing to up the ante without seeming like it’s trying too hard. You finally get to see more of this figure that’s haunting this family for twenty years, but much like the shark in Jaws, the film-makers know the right moment when to deploy these blink-and-you-miss-it images and to not show for too long. And by the time the film was drawing to a close, I was in a paranoid, edge-of-my-seat state of mind as I nervously awaited what ever was coming my way next.

Haters of the original film aren’t going to be won over by this entry. It’s ultimately the same “found-footage” and jump scares franchise that it’s always been. Doors open and close. Furniture gets re-arranged and occasionally someone’s going to get grabbed by an unseen entity. But, if you were able to suspend your disbelief for the first entry in the franchise and get lost in its low-budget scares, Paranormal Activity 3 is the exact right steps the franchise needed to take after losing its way for the second film. I probably won’t ever watch the fourth entry in the series which just came out because of its absolutely abysmal reviews, but if I’m allowed to look at the franchise just as the original trilogy, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying ending.

Final Score: B+

As a life-long native of West Virginia (not counting the summer I lived in Italy and the four months at the beginning of this year that I lived in New York City), I am always wary of fictional portrayal of my home state. We’re either portrayed as the dirt-poor bumpkins we used to be (Matewan and October Sky) or we’re made out to be psychopathic in-bred killers (Wrong Turn et al). The only film I can name where taking place in West Virginia was just a random, not important part of the setting was the under-rated Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. The low-budget indie horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, with it’s West Virginia setting and hillbilly protagonists, had the potential to be another West Virginia set film to offend all of us mountain children, but with its consistently hilarious tongue-in-cheek sensibilities and inversion of the college kids vs. evil redneck stereotypes, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil was instead a B-Movie blast.

Simple but lovable rednecks Dale (Invasion‘s Scott Labine) and Tucker (Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk) head up to their isolated vacation home in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. Camping not far from their site is a group of obnoxious college kids, including the sweet and innocent Alison (30 Rock‘s Katrina Bowden). The big-boned and big-hearted Dale takes a fancy to Alison but his backwards demeanor and country look scare the college kids. When Alison falls and hits her head on a rock while swimming, she’s rescued by Tucker and Dale, but the college kids think they’re in a horror movie and that Tucker and Dale are going to kidnap and murder their friend. As the college kids try to “rescue” their friend, Tucker and Dale’s lives take a turn for the complicated as the kids rescue attempts end with death and destruction and every one becomes certain that Tucker and Dale are psychopathic killers.

Fans of Firefly and Serenity (or even his scene-stealing bit as “Pirate Steve” in Dodgeball) don’t need anyone else to tell them that Alan Tudyk is a terribly under-appreciated comic actor. He plays the redneck Tucker perfectly straight, but he still manages to get most of the biggest laughs in the film. Combine his deadpan and dead serious delivery with the gut-bustingly funny things he has to say, and you have the recipe for a great performance, and Alan Tudyk delivers. Tyler Labine was consistently the second best part of Invasion (behind the commanding William Fichtner) and he turns a stock horror stereotype like Dale into a loveable and very endearing lead. Katrina Bowden is one of the most gorgeous women working in television today, but I’m not sure if her comedic chops are up to keeping up with Labine and Tudyk, and the other college kids were either forgettable or outright bad actors.

The humor in the film comes from constantly flipping traditional horror storytelling devices on their head and playing with perspective in a way similar to Atonement (although obviously not as well done or artistic as that film). While the college kids are your stereotypical horror protagonists, Tucker and Dale break the mold in almost every way imaginable. Their just real, actual rednecks that I would know and go to high school with. They drink too much beer. They go fishing. They wear really unfortunate clothes, and they’d give the shirt off their back to strangers in need. And as they try to help Alison throughout the film, it is their appearance and a lack of complete information that drives the crazy college kids to think Tucker and Dale are killers. Which leads to hilarious moments like Tucker trying to explain to a cop why a college kid would just jump into a wood chipper.

The film succeeds when it goes for a winning brand of stupid but still funny sophomoric humor and genre satire. But when, by the end of the film, it tries to play the horror even just a little bit straight, it begins to feel like the terrible B-movies that it’s making fun of. The twist at the end seems especially unnecessary but the film is a loving homage to terrible B-films so perhaps it felt the need to throw in those types of ridiculous plot twists. But when the film is running all cylinders, it can be an almost endless set up of visual gags and gross-out humor. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil does not shy away from the gore that is part and parcel of the horror series, and few films have made carnage so hilarious.

It’s not a perfect movie, and if you’re one of those types that can’t enjoy films that are so dumb they’re brilliant (i.e. Idiocracy, early Adam Sandler, the first Dumb & Dumber), you probably won’t understand why I thought this movie was so hilarious. Still, tonight’s Halloween (although I watched the movie at like 1 AM this morning), and is there a better way to celebrate the holiday than a good horror film? Plus, I’m going to be watching Rocky Horror Picture Show as well before I go to bed. So, there will be a review for what I still think is one of the best B-movies ever made. My last work on Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is that for fans of horror and for fans of witty satires, this film will provide a lot of laughs.

Final Score: B