Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979), or What Beautiful Music They Make

31 10 2009

Well, folks, I’ve saved the best for last on this Cinematronica horror movie outing I’ve been tentatively referring to as OH MY GOD! THERE’S A DEAD BODY IN MY DVD PLAYER! SOMEBODY CALL THE POLICE!!! We’ve seen thrillers, slashers, paranormal films, and monster movies. Now we come to Halloween night, and if any of you have decided to sit back, relax, and watch a scary movie with your family and friends, make it this one. This remake of the 1922 German Dracula re-imagining, created by Werner Herzog himself and starring the legendary Klaus Kinski, is one for the books. It’s eerie, it’s creepy, it’s frightening, and it captures all the original feel and flavor of the Murnau original. But it does the original even one better by adding Kinski as Count Orlok, who was the most intense actor of his generation. If you watch this movie tonight, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Okay, basically, the original Nosferatu was a German rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with really only the names changed to ensure they would not be sued. So it follows, almost to the letter, the events of the Stoker vampire tale. Here, though, the names have all been  re-replaced, and are now the names from the Bram Stoker tale. An estate agent named Jonathan Harker has made a lucrative deal recently with a man known as Count Dracula who wishes to buy a castle in Wismar. To complete the deal, Harker leaves for Transylvania, Romania to where the Count lives. After being unnerved by a panicky local populace in Transylvania, he goes and has a meeting with the Count, who is a terror to behold. With a thin white body, claw-like hands, long, sharp teeth like a predator’s, and a completely sleek head, he is seemingly not of this earth. But after Harker speaks to him, he comes to feel for this man, who is lonely and very courteous to his guest. After a meeting in which he catches a glimpse of a small portrait of Lucy, Harker’s wife, he instantly agrees to purchase the property. It seems all cut and dry, but Harker begins to have nightmares while he stays there of the Count, and his wife Lucy, back in Wismar, begins to have terrors of her own. Things don’t get any better as Dracula makes his move toward Wismar, as the crew of the ship moving him begins to die off mysteriously, Harker’s employer Renfield, is stricken with a violent madness, and Wismar itself slowly faces the grip of death as Dracula’s arrival becomes a harbinger of a massive shrink in the population. Who can stop this strange menace that seems to emanate from the hand of the inhuman Count? And will it be at the risk of their very soul if they try?

This is such a good remake. Everything that was so mesmerizing about the original is turned up to 11, and even the details Herzog took a liberty with are exceptional. One of my favorite things he changes here is the humanization of Dracula. He’s not some inhuman beast like the 1922 version; here, you get the sense that he despises himself and what he is, and that makes it so much more fulfilling when the blood starts flowing because you almost felt sorry for him. The distant look in his eyes when he speaks of his nature is an emotional highlight in this film. Herzog really reinforces his reputation as one of Germany’s finest directors here.

The cast is excellent. Stupendous, even. With Kinski as the anchor of the film, it’s hard to fail. His silent intensity is absolutely phenomenal. When he speaks, it resonates with the age of centuries, a lifetime comprised of lifetimes, and it is a wonder to be in the presence of the monster. And he is a monster. Because nothing is more heartbreaking than the one who stabs you in the back after you part from a handshake. I feel for Dracula, I really do. He has a sadness, imbued in him by Kinski, that is so palpable that I could see myself weeping for him. But he is, in the end, a villain, and not only because he must be. There’s something in him that wishes death, invites the cry of the fall upon himself. He is a beast, we the prey, and we two were never meant to be so close. I also enjoyed the acting of Isabelle Adjani, who plays the plucky and strong Lucy. The character is a vast improvement over the original, and Adjani is more than apt for the part. Lucy is stronger and more relatable, and she is also a lot smarter than the dumb-as-rocks character in the silent film. I like her involvement a lot, and it can’t be said that she isn’t just absolutely radiant.

But let’s not forget that this is a horror, and I was certainly frightened by more than a few scenes. Every time Kinski is on screen, he has that barely hinged demeanor that makes you feel that all bets are off. Look at the clip above and tell me that every second he and Lucy are alone together is not just torture. Renfield is also a scary bastard. At one point he actually freaks out and bites a cow!!! His eyes are priceless, and it’s a highlight of the film. The score by rock band Popol Vuh adds considerably to the mysterious theme of the film. It feels at times that we fall into this movie, as one falls into the subconscious when slumber comes upon us, and Popol Vuh blurs that line between the dream and the reality very well with their intensive score.

A great remake that needs to be lifted high on the ramparts. It might be the best movie I’ve seen from this Halloween bunch, and I’ve seen some amazing movies. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better vampire movie PERIOD, and if you have any idea just how many of those there are, you know that’s a serious statement. I love it; it’s scary, atmospheric, emotional, and well-made. Kinski and Herzog together made a pairing that defied conventions, but exceeded any expectations, and this, their second film together, is a watershed moment when their cohesiveness peaked in so many ways. I think you’ll like it a lot; I give Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht 10 bitten livestock out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Happy Halloween, everyone! I hope you enjoyed my little movie marathon! Tomorrow it’s back to brass tacks with a movie that I think everyone can relate to; Songs From the Second Floor! Until then!!!

PSA: The Messengers (2007), or Play The BOO! Scare Drinking Game

30 10 2009

Well, folks, time again for another scary movie that in my 2 week long series of Halloween-themed movies that I am tentatively calling MOVIES THAT MAKE ME WANT TO HAVE A STRONGER BLADDER SO I DON’T HAVE TO WRAP MY COUCH IN PLASTIC! Today we have a movie that will scare nobody, but might just piss you off enough to give you serious stress-related maladies. It’s your standard “family moves into a house that has a shady history of paranormal activity” a la The Amityville Horror, but feels the need to sweeten the pot with a whole lot of GOTCHA! scares that I’m starting to think are structurally designed to piss me off. It’s really, truly generic, and I don’t think anyone would even remember this movie if it wasn’t for the insertion of Kristen “Eternal Love, Kinda” Stewart, aka Bella from Twilight.

Well, guess what? We’re going on a cinematic road trip to North Dakota! Now, don’t hang yourselves just yet. It’s the struggles of a family trying to eke out a living  from a sunflower farm, and the usual blasé strain a cross-country move on a family. The father is struggling to make this floundering venture work, and the kids don’t understand why they had to move and leave their friends behind, and the wife is having a hard time dealing with it, yadda yadda yadda. Anyway, GHOSTS!!! There are ghosts in the house, and at first only the children can sense it, the young mute son Ben, and the teenage daughter Jess. Odd events around the house, along with unexplainable stains on the wall and terrifying (AND LOUD!) noises mark their arrival, as well as the arrival of a strange guest to their house. His name is John, and he is just some guy who has offered to help the father with the day-to-day of the sunflower business. There’s something not right about him, and there’s something not right with the house, but as usual, parents just don’t understand, and they don’t believe daughter Jess when she tells them that something is up. It’s up to her to unravel the mystery surrounding this boring North Dakota house and the man who says he’s just nobody but is indeed probably somebody. but can she find out in time, or will the ghosts make their presence known more forcefully next time they appear?

Can it get any more bland? I might as well have watched some Cream-of-Wheat whirl around in a microwave for 90 minutes. This was a severe waste of my time, and I feel slightly poorer for having watched it. With a twist ending you could see coming a mile out into the sunflower fields and a concept that has been fucked to the ground, The Messengers has made a fool out of me not once, but TWICE in my life. I watched this once it came out on DVD a while back, and was severely disappointed with what I found. Now, I’m back to review it, and, surprisingly enough, I don’t find it to be very salvageable. The Pang brothers, directors of both Bangkok Dangerous and Bangkok Dangerous, can scratch out horror on their list of genres that they mistakenly alter based on the audience they’re shooting for. Their Asian films are good enough, but when they get to the States they have this distorted view of what we want that translates roughly to, how do you say it in English, uh, BOO! It’s annoying, and I’d really appreciate itif they stopped changing their style to accommodate us filthy Americans.

The cast is basic, bare-bones, and that’s a shame considering the names they generated. I didn’t expect much from McDermott, who seems more comfortable on TV than he does on the silver screen. There’s not much to say about his character, the father; I guess I believe that he loves his family, which is some kind of vague compliment. Penelope Ann Miller visits the set every now and then as the doting mother, and, well, she tries. John Corbett and Kristen Stewart are the only two break-outs here, because they’re actually trying. John Corbett plays John (no relation), the worker who has something he’s not telling everyone. He starts out so friendly, but his intensity slowly ratchets up as the movie progresses and makes the film bearable. And I won’t pick on Kristen too much, because she actually puts forth a lot of effort here. She’s not a virtuoso or anything, but I appreciated the fact that she took the part seriously and made the character believable in her petulance, as well as sketching her own shady past with a few broad brushstrokes.

And there’s not a whole lot more to say. The Messengers is a movie to avoid unless you’re just a horror movie fanatic who can’t get enough of them. And even then, we’re talking bottom of the barrel here; you can surely find some good ones you haven’t seen yet if you look hard enough. It’s not very imaginative, it’s not very skillfully executed, and, with the exception of a few moments, its much less frightening as much as it is infuriating in its insistence for scares. Don’t go see this film, I promise you won’t be missing out. I give The Messengers 3 filthy Americans out of 10. Boo.

Tomorrow’s Halloween! I picked the best horror film I could think of for this very special occasion! Tomorrow you and I BOTH need to watch Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht starring Klaus Kinski! I’ll tell you why tomorrow!

The Others (2001), or Heathen Children

30 10 2009

Welcome back everyone, to today’s installment of AHHH! SCARY IMAGES AND LOUD NOISES MAKE ME LOSE CONTROL OF MY BOWELS! The Others is one of those films that I’m guilted for having not seen. I tell people I haven’t seen The Others, and, all of a sudden, it turns into “YOU haven’t seen THE OTHERS?!?! I thought you liked movies?”, and I am thusly shamed by the community I work and play in. Nevertheless, it seems that I was indeed missing out on an effective horror film that utilizes a mixture of different scare tactics to try and attack the viewer. It’s dark, rich, and stylistically textured. And while the acting did not impress me on many levels, it’s still a nice film to check out to get a case of the creeps this Halloween.

In a posh British mansion just after the Second World War, a prim mother of two named Grace struggles to raise her children alone. The two children, Nicholas and Anne, have a sensitivity to light, and this becomes quite problematic for her and stressful having to deal with it by herself. She hires a few people to help around the place, and this seems to be the ideal at first. But strange things begin to happen to her family after they arrive, things that one cannot easily explain away. Her daughter Anne claims to have seen people who don’t live in the house, and perhaps don’t live at all, with her odd descriptions of them. There are doors that close without anyone closing them, instruments can be heard clearly even when there is nobody playing them. It’s all very odd, and while the children seem to be at peace with this, it deeply disturbs Grace. She goes one day in a heavy fog to see an exorcist, leaving the children to be tended to by the odd servants. But they are not the ones in any peril, because in the deep, blinding fog outside the mansion, the questions run even deeper once she finds her husband wandering around, who was apparently killed in the war…

Spooky stuff. It’s a period piece set after the war, but the stuffiness of the house makes it feel much older. It’s the fact that all the drapes are pulled shut for the children, and even during the day, everything is lit by a hurricane lantern. The ambiance is suffocating, intoxicating, and yet unknowingly inviting, as if the spirits of the house beckon to the life within us as keepsakes of their former selves. The house itself is really a character, and really the most important character in The Others, because it is the prison, the window from which our protagonists look out of, and the others look into.

A great concept combined with a historical realism seldom present in horror makes for a gripping story. I really cared about all these characters, even the frigid beast of an actress Nicole Kidman evoked some inkling of emotion from me, narrowly evading the Least Wanted List today by actually doing a good job. She plays Grace, and although she had to grow on me, she eventually settled on my heart like dust on a long British mantle. It has a lot to do with director Alejandro Amenabar’s excellent handling of not only her character, but the world she lives in. I enjoy Grace because of what she is in the world Amenabar built; she’s a shadow in the midst of shadows. She is a dark woman in a dark house with dark thoughts in her mind. Her whispers are soft and thread-bare, her movements are slow and graceful like grand old drapery, and the life she has made in the secluded country estate is quiet but tinged with a vague anticipation. She really is, in many ways, tied to the house, as both an actress and a character.

Among the other things that set this film apart, I particularly enjoyed the score by Amenabar himself; it is incredibly fitting, and undeniably moving. Some of the tracks seem to blend in with the visuals as if it had transcended the senses. The set design is immaculate, with almost all the film taking place either in the creaky Victorian house or the surrounding murky forest. Wonderful setting for a scary movie. And Christopher Eccleston dazzles as the mysterious Charles, Grace’s husband who was thought to be dead. I won’t say too much about his character, but he does an excellent job in a role that could have easily been loopy.

There’s a lot to love with The Others. The source of fear here is the complete unknowable will of the others, and the impenetrable cowl that Grace casts over the dark world of the house. it blurs the lines of reality and even the lines between life and death, and it was done in a tasteful, almost delicate way that I can respect as a film connoisseur and a horror junkie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you HAVE to check it out once. I give The Others 9 1/2 light allergies out of 10. A high recommendation!

Keep both eyes peeled for my review of everyone’s favorite barn house thriller, The Messengers! Coming soon!

Bad Storm Knocked Out The Internet! I’ll Return Tomorrow!

29 10 2009

Sorry, folks! A bad storm here in H-town knocked down my internet temporarily, so I’ll have to finish tomorrow! You’ll get not only my review of The Others, but also my review of The Messengers! Sorry, again; I’ll pay you back in quality work!

The Devils (1971), or The Horrors Of Organized Religion

28 10 2009

Well, folks, welcome to another scare-tastic edition of HORROR MOVIES THAT ARE CURRENTLY ON MY HARD DRIVE (PROBABLY ILLEGALLY) THAT ARE VERY FITTING FOR THIS HALLOWEEN SEASON! Today is a movie that is unreasonably hard to find in America. Despite its power as a modern masterpiece of terror and suspense, because of its intense sexual nature it has been constantly ignored by many as a simple exploitation film and has been denied a mass-produced American DVD. But if you can find a copy, no matter the quality, you’re in for a real Halloween treat today, because The Devils, despite its ill repute, is a masterful film about religious fanaticism that is both awe-inspiring and down-right spooky. Ken Russell put much of his mind and soul into this film, and it shows in every gripping, gut-wrenching moment of this film.

Set in the 17th century, we follow the tyrannical sweep of the fanatical Cardinal Richelieu throughout the frightened French countryside. He has convinced King Louis XIII to destroy the local defenses around the cities of France to prevent those damn Protestants from uprising and usurping the Catholics. Louis thinks it’s fine, but he tells the Cardinal he musn’t destroy the defenses of the city of Loudon, as he made a personal promise to the governor. Unfortunately for Loudon , the governor has recently perished, leaving it in the hands of Urbain Grandier, a well-regarded priest. He’s stirring up a lot of trouble in town among the ladies due to his highly sexy 17th century nature, and he’s making the rounds with a couple high-profile dames. One of whom, Madeline du Brou, he marries in a simple secret ceremony. This enrages a deformed nun named Sister Jeanne, a hunchback who has a deep lust for Grandier, and wants it really bad from him, going so far as to superimpose him on Jesus’ body in her sexual fantasies (!!!). When the government comes in and demands the fortifications be destroyed, Grandier has to keep his wits about him and do what he can to prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, this turns out to be nigh impossible when it is revealed that Sister Jeanne has accused Grandier of witchcraft, as well as seduction of her convent, two devastating charges against him. The church begins to turn on the one man who can save the city, but when the church turns on you in the 17th century, there’s really no recovering. And when a mentally unstable inquisitor named Father Pierre Barre comes in to investigate, the entire sad state of affairs devolves into psychotic religious fervor that threatens the entire town of Loudon.

The Devils is an engrossing, terrifying film about power and control in a number of different aspects. Louis just wants to control absolutely without acting, the despotic Cardinal wants control over the Protestants, Sister Jeanne wants control over Grandier’s heart, and Father Barre just wants to the power over the life and death of men. And meanwhile, Grandier, played by a brilliant Oliver Reed in one of his finest performances, is having power constantly taken away from him by forces beyond his control. The world these characters live in is a brutish, fatalistic vision of the past that seeks to damn the audience while it simultaneously damns all of its main characters.

If you need any proof that this film is frightening, simply take into account the fact that this film is set in a time when the Catholic Church held all the lives of the Western world by the throat. If that thought doesn’t chill you to the bone, perhaps you haven’t reckoned that concept long enough. While there are a number of scenes in this film that over-exaggerate the fervor of the day (the ritualistic orgy outside an exorcism, a nun masturbating with the femur of a heretic (!!!)) it’s really, sadly, not all that far off. This is a film where people are punished for ALLEGED WITCHCRAFT with forced enemas and punished for “CONFIRMED” WITCHCRAFT by burning at the stake! It’s easy to look from our ivory tower of relative religious tolerance in 2009’s America and say that faith has a relevant, important place in today’s society, but if the God that speaks to Christians today is the same God that spoke to Christians back then, then maybe we should all take a look at our moral priorities while God gets a forced enema to shut his fucking mouth for a second.

Is that not scary enough for ya? How about some intense Grand Guignol action? This is not only a personal message film by madcap director Ken Russell, but it’s also a visually arresting one that brings back to mind the exotic imagery of his later film, Altered States. It’s a beautifully crafted horror with creepy imagery abounding. Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave in a breakout performance, is creepy all by herself, the way she flirts back and forth with her own twisted demons. The use of skulls and demonic faces, flickering and flashing on the screen, is also a nice touch in some of the transition shots. I love how they framed Father Barre in some of the interrogation scenes; he feels at times to be a demon from another world, a frothing lunatic with a sincere love for pain and death. Ken Russell designed this withe the idea to inflict some real fear, and I think he succeeds; he did with me at least.

There are a number of proclivities to The Devils that makes it a very special movie. It’s dark, it’s piercing, and it has that moral lucidity that can only come from a director who’s not afraid to point a finger and declare everyone to be wrong. And everybody IS wrong in The Devils. You might not even like its hero, Grandier, because Oliver Reed isn’t exactly known for his Downy softness. But you will think nonetheless, and when I think during an intense horror movie, I come up with some of my best ideas. So check it out if you can find it. It’s quite a disturbing film with a number of graphic scenes you won’t soon forget. I give The Devils 9 1/2 charred femur marital aids out of 10! A high recommendation! Click this link if you’re interested in purchasing The Devils on Amazon, one of this movie’s only (legal) outlets!

Gird your loins, everyone! I have The Others coming up tomorrow! Until then!

Carnival Of Souls (1962), or The Man Of My Dreams

27 10 2009

Carnival of Souls might just be the best thing to come out of an attempt to make a B-movie I’ve ever seen. Shot for a paltry $33,000, this is a very intense, mood-heavy horror that I found to be both mesmerizing and evocative. Compared to most of the films I’ve seen to cost that much from the 60s, I could name maybe zero that were worth 85-90 minutes of your time. This one, though, is a boon to the low-budget American feature, a mind-bender with a palpable terror in it, and just a damn fine feature. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t blame you, but now’s a good time to check it out and scare the tar out of some of your friends.

It all begins on a bridge, similar to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Three young girls decide to fool around and drag race on a bridge with three young, cute boys. The boys accidentally bump the girls and they plummet off the bridge, presumably to their deaths. But it’s not all cut-and-dry, because one of the girls, an organist named Mary, somehow survives. She emerges from the river, shaken but apparently alive, and tries to get on with her life after the terrible tragedy that befell her. Something’s different, though, after the crash. She can’t shake this horrible vision of a gaunt, pale-faced man staring at her, beckoning to her. She sees him in mirrors, in public places, in the privacy of her apartment. Even when she moves to Salt Lake City to fill a position for a church organist, she sees him silently staring at her, calling to him. And it becomes more than just the Man, as more and more ghoulish figures arise from the ether to torment her while she struggles with the burden of this life without life, this ghastly, lonely existence, where her only tie to reality is an abandoned pavilion that calls to her betwixt the great gulf of reality and the disturbing world of the Man. What does the Man want from her? Where did he come from? Will she ever be able to rid herself of him?

Better evidence that the simple ideas can be the most effective has rarely been found. I went into Carnival of Souls not knowing what to expect, and I came out genuinely unnerved. It’s not a film to be taken lightly, and even fans of modern horror films with the BOO! scares and the loud music can respect its power. It has an ability to frighten that lies in its unknowable, mysterious nature. We don’t know the reason the Man desires for Mary, where he comes from, or why he is tied to the abandoned pavilion, but we  feel that he’s a malevolent spirit that won’t rest until she’s in his grasp. It’s his relentlessness that gets me. Poor Mary is in shambles by the end of this film, because the Man is always popping out at her when she feels she’s safe.

Director Herk Harvey is an innovator, a man truly before his time when it came to making horror. He has such a knack for finding the most visceral shots, the most tingle-inducing scenery, and the most haunting music. It’s very, very impressive for the budget. He also had a knack for make-up, because here he actually plays as the mysterious Man who desperately wants the company of our heroine Mary. And does anyone recognize the name of Herk Harvey from anywhere besides this? Well, if you ever had to watch educational shorts, or if you just like watching those old, antiquated pieces of shit, you’ll remember him as the director of a vast amount of Centron Productions! That’s right, if you were ever instructed on school spirit, choosing industrial arts in high school, peer pressure, or good hygiene by a shaky, disembodied voice, it was probably a film made by Herk Harvey! This was his ONLY feature film, and it leaves me to wonder what might have been if he had continued to make more features throughout his life.

Candace Hilligoss is Mary, our tragic hero. She must face all this terror alone, inside a veneer of stability and control for the outside world. I saw a lot of potential with her as a leading woman here. She’s brave but not afraid to show her vulnerabilities to the camera. When she’s playing the organ, her dainty feet gingerly touching the pedals as the pours her heart into the song with her fingers, I saw a lot of character in that; it’s the only escape she has from the Man and his Carnival of Souls. And when that too is tainted by the otherworldly power of the Man, I felt a genuine tug on my heart strings. She’s a very well-rounded actress, and it’s a god-damn shame she’s not in more films.

So a very frightening film that’s not for laughs (even though Mike Nelson, on a commentary track for the DVD, mocked it soundly). Carnival of Souls is a movie about the unknown. Herk Harvey pulls and twists on the imaginations of the audience with his inexplicable imagery for 85 minutes, and even when the ending is finally revealed to you, you won’t easily forget the eerie build-up to it. I highly recommend Carnival of Souls for any serious horror movie-watching marathon! I give it 9 Centron Productions out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we’ll be taking a gander at The Devils! Until then!

Hard Rock Zombies (1985), or Even Death Can’t Stop Their Rocking!!!

26 10 2009

What a concept! Hard Rock Zombies has to at least be in the running for one of the kookiest and most enjoyable B-movie plots I’ve ever heard. This was a movie I picked up in a compilation of about 30 or so others, and normally when I do that, I end up with about 2 movies and 28 coasters. But this was definitely a highlight that should be regarded with the likes of Street Trash and Dead Alive as one of the forerunners of gross-out horror flicks and a testament to the awful, awful taste of the 1980s.

So, we’re following the exploits of possibly the greatest band ever, called, um, let’s just call them The Group. The Group tours the country with their manager playing “hard rock” that sounds more like Journey than anything approaching hard. They’re playing some town in Who Cares?, USA, when they’re warned by a shy girl named Cassie not to go on the next scheduled gig of their tour, in the hilariously-named town of Grand Guignol. The Group appreciates the advice, especially dreamy frontman Jessie, who has a bit of a crush on Cassie, but they HAVE to go; there’s a major talent scout that happens to be there in the armpit of nowhere (CONVENIENT!). So they go, blissfully unaware that the town is just pulsing with hatred towards them and their loud, “hard-rock” music, including the sheriff, most of the townsfolk, and Hitler’s deranged, deformed family (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). That’s right; ADOLF HITLER lives in Grand Guignol, and he has plans to kill The Group (for some reason)! It’s a dastardly plan that ends up killing The Group member by member, but what Hitler doesn’t know is that Jessie, in his studies of the occult, has perfected a bass line that can bring the dead back to life (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and in the event of his death will be played at his funeral so he can be revived as a zombie to wreak havoc on those that wronged him and to protect his living loved ones.  So get ready Adolf, because this Journey knock-off group doesn’t take shit from anyone, dead or alive!

Can you believe that? Adolf Hitler? Bass line of zombification? Journey considered “hard rock”? This is crazy stuff!!! I found myself slack-jawed and wide-eyed all 85 minutes of Hard Rock Zombies. It’s so insane and so ridiculous that you’ll find yourself wondering just what the hell is going on from time to time. Director, producer, writer, and probably caterer Krishna Shah must have had a field day making this low-budget fun-gasm. I really feel like I’m having a good time when I’m watching this film, which is what the hell I’m watching movies for in the first place, isn’t it? The Group even bursts into song a few times on their misadventures, music video-style, so even though the songs kinda suck (the “Na-Na-Na” video above is pretty bad) I still can’t help but get swept away in the happy-go-lucky feeling.

Have you ever seen a guy eat himself? How about Eva Braun turning into a werewolf? If the effects team for Hard Rock Zombies can be congratulated for anything, it’s being original. The gore effects and off-the-wall creatures for this movie are surprisingly original and effective. To a certain extent; I’m not saying this is the next coming of 80s Weta, but there was some neat stuff going on here. The death scenes for The Group were well thought out, the zombies look a little above average, and while it wasn’t a bloodbath, everyone got a little bloody, and that’s what we’re looking for in a movie like this. And keep an eye out for the eccentric set design for Hitler’s house; it’s Nazi-tastic, and it answers unequivocally that age-old question; did Hitler perform his own experiments instead of just having them commissioned by top Nazi scientists?

Actor E.J. Curio plays Jessie, the leader of the band. He’s an 80s heartthrob if ever I saw one, and it’s a shame that he never went on to do much else as an actor (besides some Playgirl spreads; seriously NSFW). He’s young, he’s a singer in a band, and I really get the feeling that he thought this would be a big break for him. That’s no slam against him; on the contrary, this really adds to the fun element to the movie. He puts a lot into it, they all do, and I really appreciate how much fun they made this. And just as a bonus for picking me up out of the funk I was in after seeing An American Haunting yesterday, I’ll even put up a link to his new band’s Myspace page. His band’s called Silent Rage, and it’s not very good, but if you like cheesy 80s, um, one reviewer calls it “melodic hard rock” , then take a stab at it HERE.

Hard Rock Zombies was made with the idea of laughing in mind. I firmly believe that you can’t make a movie like this without having some sort of cognizance that what you’re doing is fucking nuts. The problem is if you start to either take it too seriously or not enough. They knew what they were doing, and I think they did a good job of it altogether. It’s kitschy Halloween fun that will leave you in stitches from all the HUH? moments thrown at you and all the Dead Alive-esque splatter horror-comedy elements involved. I give Hard Rock Zombies 7 “hard rock” ballads out of 10.

Tomorrow we get serious with a scary movie from the 60s called Carnival of Souls! Until then!

An American Haunting (2006), or This Was Awful

25 10 2009

Well, every now and then you have to hit a brick wall. After a few days of decent horror flicks in my Halloween Spook-tacular, I found one that needs a bullet to the head. An American Haunting puts a lot of the movies I say are bad to shame. This one is just so disappointing it hurts. An American Haunting billed itself wrong on three different fronts; one, that it was a scary movie, two, that it was based on some semblance of folklore or local legend, and finally that the film featured a ghost. None of these things happen at any point in the movie, and I can only guess that the creators of An American Haunting felt it necessary to have to lie in order to mask the shameful lack of eventfulness in this incredibly dull ghost movie that promises the moon but only delivers a bitch-slap from a phantom (THAT ISN’T EVEN A PHANTOM!).

So we’re in the 1800s, somewhere around Tennessee, when we’re taken to the home of John Bell and his family. After Mr. Bell loses a case in court to a woman some people in town believe to be a witch, odd occurrences at his house begin to happen, particularly to his lovely daughter Betsy. She starts having visions of evil little girls and powerful supernatural entities that encompass her as night comes over her house. The father even encounters sightings of a terrible black wolf, and hears strange noises at night. It becomes clear to them that there is some sort of supernatural force at work here, a force that is growing stronger and stronger each night. Betsy’s teacher and some of the family friends come over to watch over the house and determine just what it is over the course of a few nights, and their astonishment knows no boundaries when they witness the terrible power of this spirit. What is this presence in the Bell house? Does it have to do with the curse the witchy woman cast on John? What will become of this distraught, well-to-do Tennessee family?

What indeed. Well, one thing that won’t happen to them is something interesting, I can tell you that much. This is one of the dreariest period pieces I have ever laid eyes on. I’ve seen piles of pencil erasers with more character than this film. There’s nothing remarkable about it, save that it’s void of anything approaching redemption. The dialog is some cheap semblance of historical realism that comes off as just lazy rather than genuine, the effects are well-worn territory that make the movie look like it should be called Little Exorcist on the Prairie, and the direction by Courtney Solomon, founder of After Dark Films, is tame and shrill compared to the ballsy horror film it could have been, proving that sometimes it’s better to be behind the desk than behind the lens.

I’m pretty harsh here, I know, but I tell you with no hyperbole that I feel absolutely infuriated by An American Haunting. It is a movie that lies to its audience. The entire idea is predicated on a falsehood. I’ve never wanted to spoil a movie for people more than I want to right now (except for maybe the ending to Knowing), because the twist at the end is so atrocious and so audacious, that I clenched my fist in anger and felt the bones in my palm. It completely invalidates itself and replaces any feelings you might have had for it with mere annoyance. If you want to know what I’m talking about, leave a comment on this page telling me you want some spoilers, and I’ll flat-out tell you. People have to be warned about this sort of thing.

The cast isn’t bad. Donald Sutherland is reliable as patriarch John Bell. He is a very serious man here with a very serious problem on his hands, and his face tells it like it is. Or maybe he was just tired a lot throughout shooting, I don’t know. Sissy Spacek is good as matriarch Lucy Bell. She cares about her family in that old-fashioned way where she comforts silently from the sidelines so as not to bother the men-folk. It’s quaint, and Spacek appears so emotionally injured all the time with that face of hers that I can’t really hate her. And Betsy, played by Rachel Hurd-Wood of Perfume fame, is not slouch herself. She plays that young and beautiful Southern belle with a fragility that is haunting in and of itself. I enjoyed her most of all out of this whole affair, and hope to soon remember this as “that movie that really sucked but had a good turn by Rachel Hurd-Wood as a girl haunted by a ‘ghost'”.

I really don’t have any patience for An American Haunting. Like a lazy Southern debutante, it was too lazy to do any of the things it was supposed to, so instead it just puts on some fine period costumes and dances around like we wouldn’t notice. Well I noticed, and I am feel pretty put-out by this film. If I have any advice for you this Halloween season, it is to NOT watch An American Haunting, not even as a lark. It’s not ha-ha bad, it’s “I can’t believe I PAID for this” bad. I give it 2 irredeemable endings out of 10, and a big thumbs-down from yours truly. Bah humbug.

Let’s try for something better tomorrow! I’m going to watch Hard Rock Zombies! Until then!

The Night Out: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009), or No, That’s Bullshit

24 10 2009

John C. Reilly is my guy. Anything that guy does is pure gold for me. Whether it’s the pointed drama of Hard Eight or the unrivaled insanity of Step Brothers, he just has such a range of emotions. Recently, he’s been hitting the comedy films, and I’ve yet to see him in anything over the past 5 years that has been anything approaching serious, but if you go back to the late 90s and early 00s, you’ll see he has a lot to offer as a serious performer. The character he plays in today’s film, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, is a step in that serious direction, falling somewhere between serious vampire and tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a better film than I thought it would be, but only because of Reilly’s uncanny ability to make anything impeccably entertaining.

Basically, we’re taken to the land of Anytown, USA, where we meet Darren, a young man in high school who has made it his drive in life to take the path of least resistance. He gets good grades, does what his parents tell him to do, and just has a nominal existence in general. His best friend, Steve, is a little wilder though, with an unstable family past and a slightly more exciting outlook on life. One day the two are walking to class when a weird car rushes by, dropping a flyer to them for a freak show called Cirque du Freak. It sounds like fun, so straight-laced Darren sneaks out the night of the show to go with Steve. What they find is a vivid world of magical circus performers. There’s the man who can eat anything, the woman who can regenerate her own limbs, the boy with snake skin. The real stand-out performer though is a man who one of the boys recognizes as a vampire, named Larten Crepsley. He does a strange act with a one-of-a-kind giant spider that captures both of their imaginations.

When the show ends, Darren, who is revealed to be in love with spiders, concocts a plan to steal the giant spider and take it home for, I dunno, bug stuff. But before he can, Crepsley returns to the dressing room where he kept the spider and entertains two guests. One of them is Gavner, a vampire like himself, and the other is Steve, who busts in and demands in a frenzy for Crepsley to change him into a vampire. Crepsley chides him for bursting in, but tests him to see if he has what it takes to be like him, a test that Steve fails (he tells him his blood is “bad”, although I don’t know what that means). Steve is crestfallen and angered, and he vows vengeance on Crepsley. Crepsley scoffs at the idea, and sends him packing. Darren sees the whole thing before running off with the spider, and confronts Steve about it the next day at school. It all culminates when the giant spider escapes Darren’s bag at school (??) and bites Steve, who wants to kill the spider. He falls into a coma, and it seems there’s nothing to be done. But Darren knows that Crepsley must have an antidote, so he risks the vampire’s wrath to save his friend.

And Crepsley does indeed have an antidote, but the price for it is high; he is to become Crepsley’s assistant, a half-vampire who can do things for him in the daylight that a full vampire couldn’t. For this, he must live with Crepsley in the Cirque du Freak, fake his death to his family and friends, and learn the ways of the vampire. A steep tax, but Darren agrees for the sake of his friend, and he is thrust into a world he never even imagined; a world of magic, intrigue, passion, and murder that will change his outlook on life forever.

WHEW! This is the beginning of another hopeful franchise, so there is a LOT of back-story to tell. What you really need to know is that there’s a kid who has to do stuff for a vampire and learn the ways of the night, like a vampire Star Wars, or the even more relatable idea of a tub of margarine running errands for a stick of Land O’ Lakes. This is your standard first episode film; there’s lots of exposition, lots of explaining, and lots of characters that will (hopefully) become more useful in later installments. It was marketed as a young adult film, a dark and edgy flick for the PG-13 crowd, but it has an attitude that skips most of the niceties and goes for the jugular, something I like in these humdrum first installments. There is definitely a sense of urgency, something in the hearts and minds of the characters that makes all this somehow breezier than I expected it to be. It still could have used a little autonomy, a little reassurance that what we just watched wasn’t a primer for a future, better movie, but it still had its moments.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t respond to teen actors very well. They besmirch my mind and dull my sense of what is good and decent. There’s really not much they can do about it either, other than NOT act like pretty-boy wallpaper. Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson are Darren and Steve, and they surely had no real chance of not annoying me, but at least they didn’t act too obnoxiously, with the whole “teens are smarter than adults” angle that puts holes in my cerebellum whenever I hear that squiggly line of thought.

It’s all about Reilly anyway. Reilly plays Crepsley with a mix of Dr. Caligari, John C. Reilly, and Robert Mitchum that I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know how serious he was during the filming of this, but he gives off some signals every now and then that this might all be some huge joke that I wasn’t aware of. He IS serious, for the most part, though, and he lends a lot to all the many long exposition scenes that wouldn’t have been there with anyone else helming the character. And with lines like, “Your lips say ‘no’, but your beard says ‘yes'” in the film, you might as weill sign me up for any future installments. All the other adult actors make what amount to cameo appearances, and they could have all been aliens or sock puppets for all I cared. Ken Watanabe plays an abnormally large guy who grimaces a lot; no big loss there. Willem Dafoe plays Gavner, a character that is somewhere between John Waters and Walt Disney that I’m not too comfortable with, let alone interested in. Selma Hayek is a bearded lay. ‘Nuff said. One standout though was Michael Cerveris, who plays Mr. Tiny, a mysterious character we’ll learn about more in some other movie. He’s really freaky, and when you’re dealing with a movie like this, that’s a great characteristic to have.

There are some good effects here, a few key moments on the score, and some sequences that really work. Billy Wilder would have already called this a good one by now, in his book. CdF:TVA is a good first installment to a saga that probably has some legs to it. Only time will tell whether this one will get a sequel greenlighted, but if it was up to me, today, I would give it a thumbs-up, provided the sequel actually advanced the plot in some way and didn’t keep adding more and more exposition to the pile. And the condition that I could play wall-ball with John C. Reilly. It’s not for your younger kids, but if you have any mid to older teens who need to get out of the gouse for 100 minutes while you fuck your spouse, this is the movie that wouldn’t bore them, out of all the new releases. I give this movie 7 1/2 future installments out of 10. Give it a shot if you trust me enough!

Tomorrow is another day, and another movie! I’ll be sure to surprise you guys with something good!

The Sentinel (1977), or Closing The Door

24 10 2009

Have you heard of this movie? The answer to that’s probably ‘no’, since I’ve never heard anyone in my entire life so much as mention it. It was a modestly budgeted supernatural horror from ’77 that carried a mind-boggling amount of star power, but not a lot of word-of-mouth here in the States. Directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish fame, The Sentinel has a pretty scary concept, an abrupt style that is just as jump-inducing as any loud music sting you could throw at an audience, and a claustrophobic soundtrack that feels like a spider building its web in your innards. If the cast were just a little more worthwhile, I would be calling this an undiscovered classic.

In a tiny posh neighborhood of Brooklyn, a young girl named Allison has just closed a deal on a super-cool rental house divided into apartments. She’s a famous fashion model with a few too many neuroses, and needs to be by herself for a while. She’s had a rough time with life, and has attempted suicide twice in her life already, and now, leaving her friends, her family, and her Roman Catholic faith behind her, she’s trying to get on with herself and start healing. But what her real estate agent doesn’t tell her about the apartment is that there are some odd neighbors in the apartments around her that aren’t all they seem. At the top floor lives a mysterious blind priest named Father Halloran, an old man with a shady past who just sits in his room all day looking out t the window. Another neighbor, a mysterious old man named Charles Chazen, comes to Allison one night and invites her to his cat’s birthday party (???) where she can meet all her other neighbors. Needless to say, he’s kind of bizarre, and Allison is unnerved by him. The longer she stays in the apartment, the more her mental and physical health deteriorates, and the more she is haunted by the painful memories of her past. And of the present, when she begins to see visions of mysterious, disfigured people mindlessly roaming the halls and corridors of her building. All this is compounded by the fact that when she asks her real estate agent about her other neighbors, she shocks Allison by telling her that the only other neighbor she has is the blind priest (!!!). So who is Charles Chazen? Who are the strange people who inhabit the building at night? Can she find out before it’s too late?

Good movie, although somewhat of a diatribe for the reawakening of the Catholic faith. Is it just me, or has anyone ever noticed that most horror movies with a religious message always tend to terrify people into piety? As if to say, “You better come back to the Catholic Church, or the Devil is going to rip your face off and use it as a decorative napkin!” Anyway, The Sentinel is a film that tends to think that less is more, and I agree. We really don’t see all that much of the horror and terror in Allison’s apartment, unless you count Burgess Meredith’s intense graying countenance as Charles Chazen. There’s a lot of that. But all the oddities and apparitions in the apartment are mostly left to the imagination as to what they could be. But when they show you the horror, get ready for some intensity. The one scene that everyone mentions online about this movie is really in-your-face, and just shock-and-awes my nerves. Allison’s investigating  a dark room, and before she can actually walk into a room, some scary guy just walks with intention in front of her and crosses the room. Not that kind of thriller walk, where the film speed downplays the quickness of the character; this guy power-walks in front of her, and if you’ve ever had someone walk right up to you that fast, but it’s a little jarring. Here, it’s fucking heart-pounding, because you don’t even know who or what it is.

It’s kind of hard to comment about the special effects and make-up. Considering I don’t know exactly what the things in the apartment are, I don’t really know how good they look comparatively. But they do look scary, that’s for sure. They’re very pale, their skin is textured and disfigured, and they each have some unique characteristic to them that makes them individually eerie. This film has come under fire in their past for a particular scene in which some of the “neighbors” are played by circus “freaks” and side-show carnival folk. And while I don’t think that part was in particularly good taste, it’s a lot less demeaning than their day-jobs (“Come one, come all, to take a look at the FREAKS!”) and it does add something to the scene’s climax. They’re not being beaten to death by Burgess Meredith with a rusty steel pipe or anything, so I don’t think it was the worst call in the world to make on Michael Winner’s part.

Speaking of Burgess Meredith, he’s the gleaming ball of sunshine in this otherwise lackluster cast. He plays Charles Chazen, the shady guy who might just be a bit more than your friendly neighborhood cat person. He’s creepy, freaky, and all-together perfect with his low, growling voice and his bulldog face. Everyone else, though, suffers from deer-in-headlights syndrome. Allison is played by Christina Raines, and she looks rather confused as to how she’s supposed to act. Her role, such as it is, is interesting, but she has all the subtlety of a grilled cheese sandwich to the face. But she’s just the tip of the iceberg. Would you believe Christopher Walken is in this movie? That’s right; Christopher “I Have A Chicken” Walken is Detective Rizzo, a guy who’s investigating the odd occurrences as a favor. He’s still in Young Walken mode, before he went full-on applesauce insane, so he’s pretty tame here. He’s actually kind of boring, really, so he gets no thumbs-up from me. John Carradine makes a brief cameo as the blind priest Father Halloran, but he’s in it for only a few seconds, so he’s more of a set piece than an actual character. Martin Balsam is here too! And Ava Gardner! And Jeff Goldblum! But nobody is really that great! It’s really all about the Meredith here, a testament to his career that he could still act circles around people in his old age.

So a bland cast mars an otherwise great feature. The Sentinel is good supernatural haunted-house story that anyone can just sit back and watch without a care in the world. It’s spooky, it’s thrilling, and if you can get past the glaring religious message, it’s quite entertaining. There aren’t a lot of movies like this, so if you don’t try it once, you might really be missing out. It will make the perfect accessory for a dark October night snuggled up on the couch as the night moves slowly upon the world like waves on the sands. I give The Sentinel 7 1/2 power-walking demons out of 10. Check it out!

Whew! Almost caught up! Keep checking back with me for my review of Cirque du Freak: The Vampires Assistant! Until then!!!