Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Victim (2011)

Unless you're like me and you have undertaken a responsibility to watch any and every horror movie that hits the shelves, you can probably skip The Victim and be perfectly fine with your life.  It's not that it's a bad film; it just doesn't deliver anything worth watching.  There were several times when I contemplated turning it off and doing something more useful, but I had awaited the BluRay from Netflix long enough to warrant sticking it out and hoping for the best.  And though there was never really any payoff, there were plenty of little moments of charm (even if they weren't intended the way I took them) that keep me going to the end.

The plot is fairly simple, as is the cast and setting.  Two cops are engaging in illicit activities with a couple of strippers out in the middle of wooded nowhere.  When things take a wrong turn, one of the strippers, wearing heeled boots, is able to outrun two in-shape cops and make it to a little cabin where a man seeking solitude, and (as we find out) reformation from his old ways, is there to take her in and help with the situation.  So, yeah, pretty simple setup.  And, again, sort of like a simple Troma plot (e.g. Mother's Day, where a group of criminals barge in on a group of friends), the setup and action takes place quickly, leaving the remainder of the film to be creative with sparse materials.  So, we get the usual format of twisted cop versus civilian, and the tables turn a couple times, etc.  Unfortunately the space for creativity is filled in with plenty of runtime padding, especially the opening credits.  Oh, and by the way, this is apparently based on a true story.

As I said, the plot is as simple as the cast and the setting.  It's a very small cast--and, in fact, the end credits spend a lot of time saluting the crew more so than the cast, which was pretty cool.  Each crew member, down to the gaffer, is presented in full-screen with his or her name and role, one at a time.  I think this was a nice token of appreciation on part of, I'm assuming, writer-director-actor Michael Biehn.  And I can't fault the film for its setting either, as some of my favorite movies take place entirely in the woods and at a cabin (Evil Dead!).  But, again with the padding: the sequences of driving around!  Yes, we get that they are in the middle of nowhere!  And why were the SUV's headlights off most of the time, in the woods, in the middle of the night?

The acting was mostly atrocious, especially between Michael Biehn and real-life spouse Jennifer Blanc.  For people who are actually married, their on-screen interaction was rigid, forced, unnatural.  Perhaps being married was the problem?  But I've seen better interaction (Courtney Cox and David Arquette, even after all their personal, media-ridiculed shenanigans) between married couples on-screen.  In any case, the dialogue between these two was painful to watch.  Which eventually led me back to thinking that this was deliberate.  That the film really was supposed to be a cheesy throwback.  What would've helped is if there had been more of the fan-favorite Danielle Harris, who only really appears in flashbacks.  Overall, it seemed to me that Ryan Honey was having the most fun with his role.

Despite its flaws--the padding, the poor dialogue, the overly simple and reused setup--The Victim does deliver some amusing elements.  Michael Biehn's macho-coolguy demeanor was entertaining.  There's a moment when he starts yelling at Jennifer Blanc to "stop yelling at me" when she wasn't really yelling at all.  It was kind of amusing in that I felt I got a glimpse at what arguments and other forms of domestic bickering are like for the two.  In the end, though, the most irritating part of my experience was my constant wondering about what this film was trying to be.  At times it felt like an homage to the old Troma films; at other times it felt like it was blatantly cheesy; but still, at other times I could tell it was taking itself way too seriously.  There was some gratuitous use of Blanc and Harris that will probably, unfortunately, be the only reason most people watch the movie (sort of like The Brown Bunny).

Rating: 2/5

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Loved Ones (2009)

Typically I patiently await my Netflix rentals, no matter if they actually ship on time or if they go into the limbo of short-wait, long-wait, unavailable, or otherwise unknown release/ship date.  But when it comes to movies from the Outback (or from France) I can't wait.  They have simply been too good for me to pass up.  So, as soon as I saw that The Loved Ones indeed did not ship the day before its projected release, I promptly removed it from my queue altogether and secured a rental at the local grocery through Redbox.  Again, something I rarely feel compelled to do, especially when I know the genre is in the torture vein--something I don't care that much for, no matter how well done.  All this to say, my expectations were high, and by the time I got the movie started I silently demanded it to deliver.

And boy did it deliver!  From Lake Mungo to The Clinic to The Loved Ones, these Aussies know how to make a movie!  Everything is evenly balanced: pacing, lighting, thrills, character chemistry, backstory, and so on.  Going into it, I knew the basic plot: an obsessed woman kidnaps her prom date and tortures him like crazy.  And, well, this is mostly true, though if you want to quibble in semantics it's not technically what happens.  Which is nice, because as soon as the action begins (and it begins fairly early) there's a nice little twist on the presumed plot.  But then I saw the running time was pretty early in the film, and I worried that it would degrade into trashy, mindless torture for the duration.  And while it pretty much does deliver a lot of trashy torture, the movie swings back and forth from setting to setting, all in linear time, to show how his (the captive's) mother and girlfriend are coping with the disappearance; his hilariously awkward buddy and his goth prom date; and a police officer who is put on the case to find him.  All of the performances are strong enough to keep the film alive and entertaining.

Speaking of his hilariously awkward buddy and his goth prom date, this film dishes out black humor from start to finish.  The first glimpse of the tone this film would take while delivering its vicious torture sequences was when the captor stops by a chicken place to pickup dinner!  I figured this would be a one-off little gag, but it is the first of a series of hilarious moments of black humor that I want to watch again and again, making this not only a great film to watch alone; but also a great film to watch with a group.

Now, let's talk about our antagonist, Lola (played by Robin McLeavy).  Wow.  What a performance.  She is twisted, evil, relentless--yet brilliant, perfect, and mesmerizing.  I always welcome a gender twist on this genre, and I believe this might be the best performance I've seen to date.  McLeavy's first couple appearances on-screen are nothing if not clichĂ©, so again I worried that this film would fall into the pit of dross with countless other films.  On the contrary, Lola shines as many different personalities.  At first, you think she's a little girl trapped in a woman's body, depending on her daddy to make her dreams come true--so, a sort of shy innocence that will endure throughout the film.  But you quickly find that she has a commanding, aggressive, violent bent, in addition to some illicit father-daughter propensities.  To sum it up, this is one evil femme fatale who stands apart from all others I've seen (on-screen and in real life).

So, as if it weren't enough for me to hear two clips of Parkway Drive's music a couple times, The Loved Ones pays strong homages to a classic of modern horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  In the end, I was thoroughly entertained and walked away with a great cinematic experience.  If you even remotely enjoy the torture genre (and no, this is not torture-porn), you're going to welcome The Loved Ones with open arms.  If you like horror movies in general and you're interested to see what these Aussie's have done with a genre that is running out of gas, you're going to be thrilled with this film.  And if you're worried that this is another take on remaking Prom Night, put it out of your mind--only about 3 minutes of the film take place within the venue of the prom (the goings on just outside, however, are utilized aplenty and are more than welcome).  Here's to yet another treat from the land down under!

Rating: 4/5

Friday, September 14, 2012

Entrance (2012)

Entrance is a film I can honestly say I watched 100% cold.  I knew nothing about this movie.  I think I added it to my queue because I saw the title pop up in my Bloody Disgusting feed or something.  In any case, I knew so little about the film that I didn't know whether to take the title, entrance, as a verb or a noun.  Was this a film about entrancing people, as in hypnosis?  Or did it have to do with entering something--or someone?  Well, as it turns out, the title can be taken either and both ways.  And it wasn't bad at all, to boot!

Now, after 15 minutes, I wasn't really digging the film, and I almost turned it off.  Could have been due to a long day, a hard workout, an evening of playing with the baby, a preceding hour of reading, and so on, because, man, I was tired!  But, despite the odds (in terms of me, the viewer) being stacked against the film, it captured my interest.  I was compelled to stick it out.  It was tough to stick with for the first 30-40 minutes, due to its pacing and its redundant character study of Suziey and her monotonous, humdrum, super banal existence in LA.  I mean, I get that they want to pull us into the redundant misery of such a boring life, but this is tough to do in film without losing your audience's interest.  Unfortunately I have no constructive advice; and at the same time, I was engaged enough to stick with it, despite being tired; so maybe my complaints are moot after all.

Suziey Block, who apparently made her film debut in The Island, is a great lead and yet another of my recent string of new faces in horror (including the superb performance of Gretchen Lodge in Lovely Molly).  And it's a good thing, too, because this was yet another demanding role of yet another strong female lead.  (I'm reminded, too, of Elizabeth Olsen's performance in Silent House.)  All of these names I've mentioned have had roles that call for them to carry the film's success on their shoulders.  As many reviewers have pointed out, these leads have been in nearly every shot of their respective films.  And in Block's case, the role calls for her to execute the balancing act of being likeable while portraying a bland personality due to the blunting that her daily life has effected on her.  Luckily, Block transcends the script's redundancy and pulls us into her life.

After sloughing through that first half of this fairly short film, the horror/thriller elements come into play.  Entrance continues the strain of subtle horror movies; it eschews jump-scares and stinging scores in exchange for the more realistic and cringe-inducing silence and limited-frame camera perspectives.  I wasn't as scared or on-edge as much as the other films I've mentioned in the previous paragraph, but I was engrossed in the film's chill in  a way I can only recall with Michael Haneke and David Lynch films.  It was that what is going on here? where is this film taking me? sort of experience.  So, yeah, more of a mystery type of movie, but without all the overt red herrings.  Suziey is heckled by some guys on the street (since she has to walk to and from work each day);  her dog goes missing; someone in a tinted-windowed car messes with her at night, as she walks home alone; and then some thrills from within her house.  All of these moments are deftly executed in terms of pacing and intensification, meaning that they are well spread out and steadily increase in creepiness.

In the end, we're rewarded with a very impressively done piece of work from an independent film of this nature.  The final scenes are well composed, keeping with our lead's perspective of course, and unexpectedly violent.  "Unexpectedly" because the film stays immersed in such normalcy, such reality for so long that the violence shocks us the way it would in real life.  Plus, by this point, we're smitten with Suziey and it's gut-wrenching to see anything malicious happen to her.  And although we do have a reused format of a killer in the house with various sharp weapons, these scenes aren't drawn out--killer and Suziey do not chase and hide, chase and hide, chase and hide, trip, break ankle, drag body, etc.  It's very straightforward, and, at the final moment, a very unexpected ending for a slasher, in which (as we've learned from Leslie Vernon) we expect to see our Final Girl. having that last moment of domination over the killer's phallus.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Juan of the Dead (2011)

Now here's a true hit classic!  And the first horror film from Cuba in the last 60 years, or something like that (so now I can add "Cuban" to my labels).  I watched this with a group and it is a confirmed crowd-pleaser that begs regular screenings.  In fact, I'm going to save a detailed review for my second experience.  Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this gem!

Rating: 4/5

Detention (2011)

I just can't get on board with this one.  It could have been a lot of fun, but the pacing was so fast I grew tried of the structure within a half hour.  Then it seemed monotonous to the point of drudgery: it became a chore to finish it.  On a positive note, though, it is a fairly unique blend of genres (is anything missed?), including coming-of-age drama, history, slasher, comedy, satire, thriller, sci-fi, time travel, and more.  Its commentary on horror culture isn't on par with the Scream series (especially Scream 4) but it does do a great job making me extremely sad to witness the vacuity of the current teen population.  In any case, this is not skippable, in my opinion, as I think it will work for some; it's definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 3/5

Apartment 143 (2011)

The cover art proclaims, "Paranormal Activity in just about every way, but with more action" (quote source illegible).  Well, nothing could be further from the truth, so I'll leave it at that.  Unfortunately, as the quote implies, this is an attempt to capitalize on PA's success by trying to win over those of us who complained that not enough actually happened in PA.  (I was in this camp until about my fourth viewing of PA.  As of then I've been smitten by its subtle charm.)  And thus I can't recommend Apartment 143 as a must-watch, but if you're addicted to flavors of the paranormal-thriller like a lot of people are addicted to zombie flicks, however redundant, then by all means watch this one.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lovely Molly (2011)

The Blair Witch Project, Altered, and now Lovely Molly--Eduardo Sanchez's movies really appeal to me.  Blair Witch scared my fifteen-year-old self nearly out of the rickety cinema in which I chanced to watch it with a couple buddies; and Altered was a ton of fun on a night when my twenty-six-year-old self chanced to watch a seemingly randomly picked offering from the slim catalogue that is Netflix Instant.  It wasn't until yesterday--the day of my planned viewing of Molly--that I even realized this was written, directed, and edited by Sanchez.  In fact, it wasn't until I looked up his filmography that I realized he also did Altered.  So, for better or worse, my expectations were as piqued as my interest.  Luckily, it delivered!

The first thing of note is atmosphere.  This movie has remarkable atmosphere, from lighting to sound engineering to POV transitions to overall compositions.  Speaking of POV transitions, this movie is a very interesting experience.  There are something like 4 different perspectives that the movie oscillates between, producing a very enjoyable and plot-thickening effect.  Thumbs way up there, Mr. Sanchez.  The use of sound has to be my close second favorite element of atmosphere.  The score is phenomenal: understated, swelling at just the right moments.  The digital squeal coming from the camcorder is not a new effect, but welcome all the same.  And that ghastly baritone that's still stuck in my head: "Molly, lovely Molly."

I contemplated leaving out any commentary regarding the visual aspects of the movie since I believe it will be unanimously apparent to all who watch, but I can't resist.  This is such a well-shot, well-edited movie.  Composition after composition, I kept thinking how perfect this house was for such a movie.  That claustrophobic stairwell thoroughly creeped me out every time it was in the frame.  That austere bedroom with two old single beds, covered with old blankets I know I, too, slept under as a kid.  The wicker wreaths on the doors.  The iron  lock slipped into the eye-hole and held by an old piece of twill.  And those horses!  Why are horses so terrifying to me?  They don't even do anything.  (And what did the whole horse thing have to do with anything, anyway?)  Why does the whole concept of horses in The Ring get under my skin?  Anyway, I really felt as though I were actually in this secluded old Virginia farmhome (I'm from Virginia, so if the movie doesn't specify, I always imagine it being set there).

Now that generalizations about the movie are out of the way, let me talk about a couple of specifics.  The opening scene executes as soon as you hit the play button, so be ready.  I thought I had a few seconds to settle myself onto the couch and all, but, no!--I hit play on the DVD menu and Molly appears on the screen, talking to me.  Then there began a quick moment that reminded me of the opening scene in Mirrors, and I rolled my eyes, thinking, oh great this is going to be crap.  Luckily, we're spared such a cheap opener and we move onto a found-footage-style wedding scene.  Since I watch movies without reading anything about them, I thought, oh it's going to be in this style the whole time.  But, as I've mentioned, it wasn't.  Instead the movie was quite crafty with its perspectives.

Spoiler Paragraph Alert.  As the mystery unfolded, and you catch on quite quickly--at least to some aspects of what happened--I found myself thinking of Silent House.  There are a lot of similarities to Silent House, but, thankfully, when Molly's epiphany (epiphanies) hit the audience, they're not forced on us as a big GOTCHA!  The similarities have more to do with underlying plot and psychological breakdown.  Like the rest of the film, they're subtly revealed without overexplanation or this strange groping for an actual ending.  Instead, Molly has an ending that left me ambivalent in the same way that The Last Exorcism's ending left me ambivalent.  (In truth, I kept waiting for a Blair Witch ending of Molly standing in the corner of the cellar!)  The end might work for some, but for me it's a little too much given the nature of the entire preceding film--again, like The Last Exorcism.

I found more than enough to love about Lovely Molly to overlook its inevitable weak points.  Any self-respecting horror fan will appreciate this film, and any lover of mystery and suspense will enjoy their experience.  From start to finish, I remained engaged, thrilled with the pacing and reveling in the freedom from being subjected to cheap thrills.  I haven't read any other reviews, but I can imagine that some might have been put off by the movie's understated approach, or by some of the loose ends.  But I've got enough questions cycling through my head today to warrant a re-watch as soon as possible.  So, I'll throw even more points at the film for eliciting enough interest to secure subsequent viewings.  A panoply of all the things I love in horror movies and devoid of all cheap gimmicks, Lovely Molly just made my Chris's Picks page.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kill List (2011)

Here's one of those nice little films that divides a community into 2 schools: the lovers and the haters.  Of course, there's always the gray space between the two schools; and in my usual must-be-accepted-by-everyone way, I currently exist in this gray space.  Chalk it up to being a victim of the hype machine, but I believe there's more to it than that.  Perhaps I'll like it better the second time around--but, then again, I'm not so sure, being that my major reasons for not loving this movie stem from the "effects" (not to be confused with FX) that are supposed to make the movie great on a first viewing, especially a cold viewing.

Let's get the elements that folks generally agree on out of the way.  First: yes, the film is beautifully shot.  Not as in breathtaking scenery and colors; but as in composition and tone.  The photography is perfect for this type of morose, gritty film.  At times claustrophobic and never flinching from a situation, there's a lot to love in the visual aesthetics of Kill List.  Second: the actors, too, bring their A game, especially the stunning MyAnna Buring, a Swedish actress whom I kept thinking was Kelly Rippa and whom I totally forgot about being in The Descent.  The tension between the two couples in the beginning section of the film is genuine and highly laudable.  And, finally, third: said beginning portion of the film centers around a dinner scene between two couples, which was confusing to the point of securing my attention but not losing me.  I've read some reviewers who were put off by the thick accents and the general confusion of the opening, but I maintain that this works in the film's favor.

Sadly, the end of the opening dinner party scene is exactly, for me, where the film stopped being interesting and became an audience-exercise in oversight and grace.  The main character's friend's girlfriend goes into the bathroom and leaves a marking on the wall.  The same marking that's on the cover art, the BluRay menu, and just about all the other marketing for the film.  I hate this with a passion!  It's why I avoid trailers and posters as much as possible.  The disc menus are probably the worst at giving away major points of any movie.  Because by this point we understand that this is some sort of cult or religious film.  If you don't and I just "ruined" the movie for you, I sincerely apologize.  But I feel fairly confident that by the end of the movie, after the "big reveal" I will not have spoiled anything.  Anyway, back to the scene in question.  This little sequence with the writing on the bathroom wall was the first of many times that I asked, what is the point?

At that point, the plot is established that the main character and his partner will team up to carry out some more hits on a list of individuals.  As an aside I will say that I am a sucker for the poetic setup of dividing the movie's parts with titles--I really like this.  What happens during the course of their hits, however, is a constant recurrence of the targets saying thank-you to the main character.  Like the sign on the bathroom wall, this seemed like forced suspense.  As in, let's just throw this in to add some suspense for the audience.  The effect, in practice, however, was lame.  Now, it could have worked had they not given us the bathroom signing scene in which the main character is not present.  Because all of these thank-yous could've been chalked up to the main character's mental breakdown.  Why not just have the main character find the marking?  Thus again I harken back to the argument about the fact that we already get this being a whole conspiracy/cult setup.  With the very first thank-you it is pretty clear that, oh, okay, they're all in on this.  Each time this happened I found myself asking, what is the point?

And then the ending.  Ah, this graceful ending to a film we've already figured out.  (I'll have to talk around this a bit so as not to spoil anything, so forgive the vagueness.)  So, as suspected Kill List takes a departure from a violent mystery/thriller setup.  And there's a harrowing moment at the very end, entitled "The Hunchback," that I will admit is quite disturbing and shocking.  In fact, I can't help but feel that the filmmakers agreed that the film didn't yield much of an effect due to letting on too early and too overtly about the true story, so they decided to throw in one last shock.  But, wait!  Is this even really a shock?  I mean, perhaps the actual depiction of the event-in-question is; but anyone who reads into an early, seemingly misplaced scene, will not be completely shocked as the film alludes to, let's say, the results of the event.  Plus, as you might have guessed, this is the biggest moment in which I asked myself, what is the point?

Thus my final assessment is that the film does too much with the story.  It's an enjoyable (I use this word in the context of a horror blog, mind you) movie to watch, but it's irritating to think about at all.  So don't analyse it, you say.  Well, that's a bit difficult when the film establishes itself as a mystery from the start.  Hopefully it will hold up on a subsequent watch.  There's a section thrown in during a moment I've already referenced, in which some character (MyAnna Buring, I assume) speaks in Swedish for a bit.  Perhaps I need to go back and turn on subs or use an iPhone app to translate it for me.  Maybe, just maybe, this little nugget is the key, encrypted in Swedish, that will unlock the film's true pleasures.  If not, I'm afraid I'll be in the same boat, rocking back and forth in the gray space between love and hate.