Monday, October 31, 2011

Freddy Vs. Jason

What better way to finish my month of horror reviews than with the culmination of the two biggest horror franchises ever?  I have already reviewed most of the Nightmare on Elm Street films and the majority of the Friday the 13th franchise, so it should come as no surprise that I was intently looking forward to Freddy vs. Jason when it initially hit theaters.  Neither series had been genuinely scary in over a decade at that point, and it had been even longer since either series had made a quality film, but I went in with ridiculously high expectations.  After all, it's called "Freddy vs. Jason;" how can you screw that up?!?  The plot is in the title, ferchrissake!!!  Then again, Alien vs. Predator sucked, so it is possible to fumble a touchdown.

Freddy vs. Jason takes place after Jason Goes to Hell and Freddy's Dead.  In case you were wondering, the current status quo for both characters is deceased; of course, that's normal for both characters, so it should be no surprise that they can come back.  Now, if you are unfamiliar with either Jason Voorhies and/or Freddy Kreuger, I'll give you a quick series catch-up.  Jason, a mass murderer in the Crystal Lake area, has been dead and buried several times over the years; for his last five films, he has been a nigh-unstoppable murder-zombie with skin of varying Naugahyde-type textures.  He kills in a variety of ways, but he loves stabbing best of all, especially when he can do it to naughty teens.  Freddy was a child murderer in life, but he became a dream demon in death; he loves to kill teens --- it's never explained why he graduated from children to teens --- but needs them to fear him to gain access to their dreams, where he makes his attacks.  Clearly, these two could probably bond over coffee and murder tales, but the title requires a fight, so let's find out how they get there.
Stabbing a dude with his own weapon is always awesome

This opus begins in Hell, which apparently isn't as full of flames as you may have been led to believe.  Freddy Kreuger (Robert Englund) gives the camera a quick recap of his history, concluding that the parents on Elm Street (his old haunt) have found a way to keep him forgotten in the minds of their children.  That means Freddy is stuck in Hell, which gives Freddy a frowny face emoticon.  I'm not exactly sure why he's upset, since he's a freaking dream demon, but maybe he just wants some more sweet, sweet dream murdering.  How will Freddy remind the kids of his evil-osity?  Obviously, he won't infest the dreams of the dozens of adults who remember him.  That just wouldn't make any sense.  Instead, he tracks down the soul of Jason Voorhies in Hell and (disguised as his Momma Voorhies) convinces Jason to return to life and do some killing on Elm Street.  Interestingly, Jason's Hell consists of him murdering promiscuous teens.  Is this film taking the daring stance that murderers go to Hell and get their own twisted eternal reward?  Of course not; the director and screenwriters are just hacks.  Another interesting point: apparently, Elm Street and Crystal Lake must be located fairly close together, because Jason seems to walk there rather quickly.  Unless, of course, he hitchhiked in-between scenes; if so, I wish that was included in the extras, because it could have been fabulous.  Anyways, Jason starts stalking Elm Street, finds some naughty kids, and starts a-stabbin'.  The local cops try to keep mum on their suspicions, but word gets to the kids that some dude named Freddy is the suspect.  And so it begins...!
"Heeeeere's Freddy!"

As always, it appears that a small group of teens is the center for all the trouble.  As always, the "teens" are actually twentysomethings, but that's an issue for another day.  This time around, it happens to be Lori (Monica Keena) and her friends, Kia (Kelly Rowland) and Big Dumb Tits (Katharine Isabelle).
What the Hell is going on behind her?
Why them?  It's hard to tell.  If Freddy was in the driving wheel, I would argue that he picked them because Lori lives in the same house that his foes from the first three Nightmares lived in.  However, it was Jason doing the choosing this time; I think it was because the house was filled with naughty teens, drinking the booze and having the premarital sex.  Being a stealthy predator, Jason sneaks into the house, gets upstairs unnoticed, waits for Big Dumb Tits to take a post-sex shower, and then neatly stabs and folds her boyfriend.
Impressive.  That's not a hide-a-way bed, either.
This is just the first of many murders (at least fourteen confirmed kills, with another half-dozen presumed dead at the cornfield rave).  Freddy enjoys his resurgent reputation at first, but Jason doesn't stop killing.  What's the problem with that?  Good question, one that is not directly answered by the filmmakers.  It appears that Jason killed someone Freddy was toying with, which set Freddy off to kill Jason, so he could have the kids to himself.  Is that convoluted enough for you?  It gets better.  Lori and her friends figure out exactly what is going on in this movie in a scene that would make Velma from Scooby-Doo proud.
"It makes sense, in a way" - actual hilarious quote from this scene
So what does the Scooby gang do next?  They have an unstoppable zombie-ish killer on their hands, and if they sleep, a dream demon will get them.  The plan is to somehow (with the help of the anti-dream drug Hypnocil) stay awake long enough to get Jason to fight Freddy, and not get killed in the process.  In classic slasher movie style, that turns out to be a tall order for most of the cast.

How's the acting?  **pause for several minutes of uncontrollable laughter**  It's "special."  Robert Englund is Freddy once again, and he is obviously loving every minute on camera.  He hams it up quite a bit --- this is definitely Vegas Freddy at his best --- but is still the main attraction, as far as acting goes.  Jason was played in this film by stuntman Ken Kirzinger, and he stabbed things in a satisfactory manner.  The rest of the cast is pretty wretched.  Monica Keena, while pretty and busty, has trouble conveying sadness, anger, fright, frustration, and happiness; she does do a pretty good Grover impression during the last few minutes of the film.
"Pooping face!"
Kelly Rowland made her film debut here, and it's full of one-liner put-downs that wouldn't intimidate fourth graders.
Actual line: "Got yer nose!"
I did love her death scene, though.  Katharine Isabelle is also pretty and busty (although that's a body double in the shower), but her character is really goddamned stupid.  Jason Ritter, while whiny, is probably the best supporting actor in the cast.  Chris Marquette plays the resident nerd character, like he always does in movies.  Lochlyn Munroe plays the police officer who, against all reason, opts to team up with a group of idiot teenagers.  Tom Butler is suitably untrustworthy as Lori's father/the anti-Freddy plot mastermind.   Also, the dead guy in the bathtub is Zack Ward, who was the yellow-eyed bastard bully, Scott Farkus, in A Christmas Story.

How's the direction?  Well, Ronny Yu had success revitalizing the Child's Play series, so it makes sense that he was hired to make Freddy vs. Jason.  Yu is a terrible director, but he knows how to make bad movies enjoyable.  Freddy vs. Jason, while not campy or terribly self-aware, is not too serious.  Instead, it is a fun slasher romp that does its best to give the audience what it wants, the stuff that was promised by the title.  Yu's talents are not of the technical variety, though.  There is a lot of bad editing and Yu clearly doesn't have a solid grasp on how to use POV camera shots, much less the imagination and talent to provide subtle hints when characters have started to dream.  If you pretend that Yu is a master director, the film is even more entertaining.  I was a Teacher's Aide for a film studies class that I had never taken, so I was asked to write a paper on a scene of my choice, explaining the meaning through the cinematography and direction.  It was the funniest thing I have ever written.
I seriously wrote a 13-page paper on this three-minute scene
For instance, in the above scene, Jason beheaded a guy while his son slept next to him on the bench.  Jason must have then cleaned up the mess, carefully balanced the severed head back on the neck (so it could fall into the son's hands), and snuck away to wait for junior to wake from dream land.  Jason is quite the prankster, especially if you pretend that Ronny Yu meant for the scene to be interpreted like that.

Since this is a slasher flick, I should probably mention the special effects.  The practical effects are all pretty solid.  Limbs are lost, arterial blood mist covers many a scene, and the kills are almost all pretty awesome-looking.  Since this is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, that also means that there are many opportunities to use effects to get surreal and creepy.  Some of these are handled very well, like the faces on the missing child posters or the eyeless child.
When the filmmakers get too reliant on CGI, though, things take a quick turn toward the ridiculous.  Kia's nose removal looks pretty bad, but the "winner" in this area has to be the hookah-smoking Freddy-caterpillar.  It looks like a cartoon, which is bad enough, but it is intended to intrigue a stoner enough to follow it into another room --- and it works!  Stupid writing + stupid CGI creature = worst scene in the movie.
Thank goodness it has facial burns.  I wouldn't know it was evil without them.

So the plot is incomprehensible, the acting sucks, and the directing is inept.  How good is Freddy vs Jason?  It is, quite possibly, the most perfect movie ever made.In his book, Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese, the co-creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000 argues that Road House is the best film of all time, because it knew exactly what it was.  Similarly, Freddy vs. Jason has no misconceptions; this is a stupid slasher movie designed to entertain through a collection of on-screen murders that are stitched together with a flimsy excuse for a plot.
Bottom left: my personal favorite "death face" in the movie
No one will ever debate that fact.  As such, the ridiculous ease with which the clueless teens manage to decipher Freddy's evil plan is absolutely perfect; it would have taken an imaginative screenwriter six months to connect the dots of this bullshit plot.  Does the audience want to see the characters struggle to figure out the plot, which would draw attention to its ludicrousness?  Of course not!  We want to see Freddy fighting Jason, dammit!

The plot point that I have the most fun with is definitely Lori's comment: "Freddy died by fire and Jason died by water.  How can we use that?"  The quick answer should be "Um, you can't," but the film likes the idea and decides that Jason is afraid of water --- even though he spends a hell of a lot of time in Camp Crystal Lake --- and Freddy is afraid of fire apparently left unaffected by whatever killed him.
So afraid of water that it makes him kill?
How stupid is that concept?  I get it, I get it, they need something for Jason to fear to let Freddy into his dreams, but...water?  Really?  I would have gone with mommy dearest.
Shouldn't this protect Jason from Freddy, then?

On the other hand, this movie gets a lot of things legitimately right.  I absolutely love Robert Englund's facial expressions when he realizes that he has been brought into the real world and is going to fight Jason.  That mix of confusion and fear was perfect.  I also liked that Freddy combats Jason with his cleverness, which is well within his normal character range.  I'm okay with Freddy taking advantage of his smaller size and speed against the lumbering giant that is Jason, but he was almost ninja-like in this movie.  It makes sense, even if it isn't based on his established character at all.  Being a Jason fan, I was also pleased that he had nineteen kills to Freddy's one in this movie.  

Of course, you can argue that Freddy and Jason have no real reason to fight.  If Jason keeps killing, it's not going to prevent people from talking about Freddy, right?  Quiet, you.  The excuse for this premise is necessarily stupid, but that was never in question.  Freddy vs. Jason works so well because it lives up to its premise without sweating the details.  I thought this was a lot of fun the first time I saw it, but in the last thirty or forty times I have viewed it, I have noticed more and more "idiosyncrasies" in the plot.  That might devalue it for some --- and I totally understand that --- but it just adds to the charm for me.  I can't possibly be objective when reviewing this piece of art, but I will concede that it is a piece of Lefty Gold.  Does it deserve the love I give it?  Absolutely not, but love isn't always rational.

I came very close to not watching this movie in time for my month of horror reviews.  I consolidated my DVD collection into binders a few years ago, and when I turned to the "F" section, I had an empty spot where Freddy vs. Jason should have been.  Who would I have lent it to?  Who wouldn't have returned it?  Who needs to die?!?  Luckily, I remembered that I got my FvJ copy as part of my four-disc Nightmare on Elm Street collection, so it was on the flip side of New Nightmare.  That wasn't very interesting, but I shared anyway.  Speaking of sharing, here's a list of ridiculously stupid moments that I love in Freddy vs. Jason:
  • Teens on Elm Street have absolutely no problem scoring alcohol below the legal drinking age
  • Big Dumb Tits, after a few drinks, is going to drive to the liquor store for more beer, claiming she is "totally below the limit."  Except that every state has some sort of Zero Tolerance law for underage kids drinking and driving.
  • Big Dumb Tits has sex with the bedroom door open in Lori's house, with other people in the house.  Afterwards, her boyfriend refuses to cuddle because he "hates being touched after."  So...much...awesome...badness...!!!
  • Lori's friends want her to have sex because she hasn't had a boyfriend since she was fourteen.  Sure, her boyfriend mysteriously disappeared and her mother died in a tragic accident at the time, but the obvious cure for emotional distress is a hot meat injection.  By the way, she can't be older than eighteen in this movie.
  • Sometimes, editing in post-production leaves in special effects without explaining them.  Case in point: the snakes on the bathroom floor.  Deleted scenes show how they got there, but the theatrical version just cuts to the floor and, whoa, snakes.
  • The stabbing and crushing of one body, beheading of another and stab wound-caused death is called a sort of "Columbine thing"?  I don't even know where to start with that one.
  • While trying to research Freddy Kreuger at the library, the records appear heavily edited.  The researching character's response: "January 18th.  That's the day my brother committed suicide [in a Freddy-related way].  Why isn't that in here?"  Probably because it would have been reported in the January 19th paper.
  • The teens motor around in a van with a wizard on the side and black lights in the back.  While that's awesome, the owner of the van has been dead for years and his little brother has been committed to the psych ward.  What kind of parents keep that thing in pristine shape?
  • They have a rave in a cornfield.  They all deserve to die.
  • My favorite raver is Powerman 5000-looking punk rock dude.  Punk rockers love glow sticks.  And rape.  I learn everything from movies.
  • After the rave massacre, the surviving kids agree to go home instead of the police.  Because, you know, one of their friends was murdered and they all need sleep.
  • The legend of Jason Voorhies has him returning from the grave to kill anyone at Camp Crystal Lake.  Except...he was alive when he did that in Part II...and then he visited the camp in Part VI, but didn't kill any'm going to call that legend incorrect.
  • The police officer explains the legend of Jason dying and coming back to kill again.  Obviously, we're dealing with a copycat killer.  The nerd says, "no, I saw what he can do, this is the real thing."  Because he knows his undead murderers.
  • Hypnocil bottles call for a 1000:1 dilution.  That's practical.
  • Freddy asks Jason, "Why won't you die?!?"  Maybe because he's an unkillable zombie murder machine?
  • The nerd charges at Jason, wielding an American flag as a weapon.  Sadly, the "Star-Spangled Banner" is not playing in the background.
  • Apparently, blood loss is supposed to be a problem for Freddy and Jason, based on how much attention it gets from the camera.  Never mind that they are undead killers, back from beyond the grave.
  • You're a stoner, trying to stay awake as you break-and-enter into a secure facility with a police officer.  What do you say?  "Time for a 'J' break"?  Really?  Really?!?
  • "'One, two, Freddy's coming for you.'  You know why they say that?  Because that's when he comes for you." "one, two"?

The Last Exorcism

I saw my very first exorcism movie last year, and I made sure it was a classic.  I went in to The Exorcist with high expectations, but was a little disappointed.  Sure, it was a quality film, but it just didn't scare me.  When I saw the previews for The Last Exorcism, on the other hand, I was a little creeped out.  While the two films are completely unrelated apart from the subject matter, I have to admit that I was hoping to get the scares I wanted from The Exorcist in The Last Exorcism.

The Last Exorcism begins with a small film crew following Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) around for a documentary.  Marcus, the son of a Reverend, has been preaching the Gospel since childhood and making a living spreading the word of God.  He has had a crisis of faith, though.  A few years ago, his son fell very ill; while he eventually survived, Marcus found himself thanking the doctors instead of God.  Since then, he has continued to preach, but it has just been a way to support his family.  Increasingly, he finds himself mocking his own theatrics and becoming more cynical in his approach to the church.  Marcus came across a newspaper article about a child being accidentally killed during an exorcism.  Marcus, himself, had been performing exorcisms since the age of ten, but this death --- which came at the hands of well-meaning people --- hit home for him.  As the consummate showman, Marcus knows what goes into a good exorcism (read: smoke and mirrors), and he has decided to bring this film crew along on an exorcism, to show the world that it is just a bunch of crap.
Smug, cynical bastard

Marcus selects his next case at random.  He tells the camera some of the typical "signs" of exorcisms, sees them in the next letter he reads, and decides to respond to the pleas of the Sweetzer family.  The daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell) is allegedly possessed by a demon.  Reverend Marcus investigates and finds a sweet and probably overly-innocent girl in Nell, a disturbed brother in Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), and a close-minded fundamentalist in their father, Louis (Louis Herthum).  Maybe Nell has a bad case of guilt, or maybe her father or brother have been doing bad things to her.  Possession?  That seems rather unlikely.  Then again, this is a movie...
Never ask a soulless ginger for directions; they will send you to Hell

The acting in The Last Exorcism is fine, but it is overshadowed by the film style.  This is another one of those hand-held faux documentaries, along the same lines as The Blair Witch Project.  There is an awful lot less running in this, so you shouldn't get the same sense of disorientation while watching The Last Exorcism, but it is still a side-effect of the cinematography style.  Personally, I am okay with this style, as long as it makes sense within the story.  Here, it is the sole camera of a documentary crew, so it works.  It does have drawbacks, because it's hard to tell what the hell is going on whenever you actually want to know what's going on, but that's part of the charm of these faux documentaries, I guess.  Did director Daniel Stamm bring anything new to the table?  Not really.

Here's what I liked.  I liked that Cotton Marcus had a pretty believable reason for his loss of faith.  I liked the creepy physicality of Nell's possession.
I really liked how well the filmmakers portrayed Marcus as a showman; he was always in character, and even through the character there were moments when you could tell he was phoning it in.  My favorite moment with Marcus was when he asked the poor farmer, Louis, if he knew Latin.  Even when he is pretending to help, he's being a condescending prick; for me, that summarized the character perfectly.  I also liked the confusing (but foreshadowing) reaction Caleb has when he realizes Marcus is a fraud.  All of those things were handled very well.  The best thing about the film, though, is that there is a compelling reason why Reverend Marcus doesn't just cut bait and go home.  That is a weakness in just about any horror movie, so it was impressive to see it addressed in a little film with a no-name cast.
Above: cynical manipulation of emotions in progress

There's a lot more that I just plain disliked, though.  I didn't like how often the camera focused on the wrong person; it was usually pretty obvious, too.  I hated that the image from this poster doesn't show up in the damn movie.
Maybe the picture is upside down and she's doing a head stand?
I thought that I might have missed it and looked for a clip online, but it appears not.  As effective as the possession was, with Nell's weird posture and bone cracking, there wasn't much of it.  My biggest problem is with the film's indecisiveness.  We are obviously supposed to be rooting for Cotton Marcus, but he's just as obviously a bastard.  He is taking this family's money, lying to them, and he is preparing to humiliate them by showing how he dupes them in this documentary.  I am perfectly fine with moral ambiguity, but that (and the fact that it's not addressed) bothered me throughout the film.  The story also bounces back and forth as to whether Nell is possessed or not.  That is to be expected, given Marcus's cynicism, but the final answer makes the rest of the film an elaborate labyrinth of manipulation.  To put it simply, in order to convince Marcus of A, he had to first think B, but then think A, but then dismiss it and return to B, but then realize that A was the obvious answer.  It's stupid, and it insults my intelligence.  Just because there is a twist doesn't mean that you get to dismiss common sense.

Still, I thought this was one of the better uses of the hand-held camera and it did have a few genuinely unsettling moments.  It is far from convincing or completely satisfying, but it isn't boring.  My initial reaction to the film was fairly positive, but the more I thought about the plot twists, the more irritated I got.  I wouldn't stop someone from watching The Last Exorcism, but I wouldn't recommend it, either.  Did I get what I was looking for in this movie?  Not exactly.  The creepiness was there, just not enough to counter the problems I had.

From Dusk Till Dawn

After a month of horror movies, I have come to the realization that there are not a lot of great vampire movies out there.  The premise is sound, but many vamp flicks just fall short of the mark, whether from budgetary reasons, stylistic choices, or simply bad writing.  I have seen From Dusk Till Dawn before, but it has been a few years since I watched it last.  This movie obviously had a budget, since legendary special effects master Tom Savini wouldn't be seen acting in a film without cool effects.  The writing is handled by Quentin Tarantino, back when his dialogue was ridiculous and overly entertaining.  As for the style, it is directed by Robert Rodriguez, features monstrous vampires, over-the-top action, and has a good part of the story take place at a strip club.  Right off the bat, you know that this isn't going to have the subtle moodiness of Interview With the Vampire.
Not the first, but certainly not the last clue

From Dusk Till Dawn opens with the notorious Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Quentin Tarantino), on the run from Texas Marshals on their way to the border.  Richard broke Seth out of police custody, and the pair had left a trail of corpses in their wake ever since.  This is partly because they are a couple of no-nonsense villains, but also because Richie is a bit of a psychopath and manufactures reasons to kill. 
They look like brothers, right?
Thanks to Richie's habit of murdering people, it has become harder and harder for the pair to maintain a low profile.  They need to sneak across the border, but how can they do it without being caught?  As luck would have it, a disillusioned preacher, Jacob (Harvey Keitel), is taking his kids on a road trip in the aftermath of their mother's death.  Their motor home catches the attention of Seth as it pulls into his motel parking lot, and suddenly, the Geckos are forcing Jacob to drive them into Mexico.

So...where are all the vampires?  Hold on, they're coming.  Once in Mexico, the crew arrives at the place where Seth is supposed to meet his contact; by morning, Seth and Richie will be on their way to their safety zone and Jacob will be free to take his two kids back home.  The meeting place happens to be a strip club named the Titty Twister, which caters to bikers and truckers.  The place is open from dusk until dawn, so it's the perfect spot for a fugitive to spend a few hours unwinding.  Except everyone in the Titty Twister happens to be a vampire.  Oops.  The best laid plans...
This scene makes me laugh every time

For being a ridiculous vampire movie, the acting is surprisingly solid in From Dusk Till Dawn.  This was George Clooney's first starring film role since he became famous in ER, so it's kind of interesting seeing this as his first step toward super-stardom.  And he is very good here; he delivers Tarantino's dialogue naturally and fits the sleaziness of his character quite well.  His role isn't perfect --- he's on the run and wears a leather vest, of all things, to blend in? --- but he is able to be a bad guy and a fairly charismatic character at the same time.
Even if he has douchebag tattoos
Quentin Tarantino isn't anywhere near as likable, but his character isn't supposed to be.  While I dislike QT as an actor, I will admit that his style fits the abrasive nature of his character perfectly.
Side note: I hate Tarantino's face
Harvey Keitel is pretty good as Jacob, but I think he is awfully stiff given the shitty day he is having; at first, I thought the awkwardness was pretty natural for a hostage, but he never unclenches.  Juliette Lewis plays his teenage daughter, and I guess she was fine.  She's a little awkward, and her screams are kind of annoying, but it was a tough role to be likable in.  Ernest Liu plays her brother and manages to be less charismatic than Lewis.  Seriously, what a dull character.  There are a lot of noteworthy actors in the rest of the cast, but most of them have far less screen time as supporting actors.  Cheech Marin played three different characters for no real reason; he was kind of funny as a vampire and later, as a crook, but his first appearance as a border patrol cop was surprisingly bland.  Salma Hayek writhed around as a stripper --- named Satanico Pandemonium --- who doesn't take her top off, dances with a snake, and lets Richie suck on her toes as she pours booze down her leg.  There isn't any substance to her character, and the toe and snake things kind of gross me out, but it's hard to criticize Hayek's portrayal of a lusty babe.
Nope.  No problems here.
Frequent Rodriguez collaborator Danny Trejo makes a brief appearance as a tough guy vampire, which adds a whole new layer of depth to his acting oeuvre.  Fred Williamson also gets to play a bad-ass, which is about the only thing he has ever done in his life.  Tom Savini didn't get much dialogue, which speaks to how little Tarantino trusted him to act, but he kicked a lot of vampire ass, which is plenty good enough for me.  There are also some noteworthy bit parts in the film; Kelly Preston is a news reporter, John Saxon is an interviewed FBI agent, Michael Parks introduces his Texas Marshal character for the first time (he pops up again in Kill Bill and the Grindhouse double feature), and John Hawkes delivers the most vintage Tarantino dialogue in the whole film as a liquor store clerk.  And to think, I was impressed by the cast of Interview With the Vampire!

Since this is a vampire movie, it is important to take a quick look at the creatures.  This time around, they are normal-looking people who transform into hideous monsters.
Danny Trejo, before transforming
Post-transformation, the creatures sometimes resemble their human selves, but not always.  The are super-strong, but their bodies are mushy, so blunt force attacks are effective against them.  They are vulnerable to sunlight, crosses, holy water, and wooden stakes, although you can just opt to punch holes in them, too.  Pretty standard stuff, but you never know what the rules are going to be in a vampire movie.

I really enjoyed the special effects in From Dusk Till Dawn.  They don't really come up much in the first half of the film, but once people start vamping out, there is a ton of very cool makeup and practical effects in every scene.
That also means that there is a good amount of gore in this movie.  Hearts get pulled out, heads get melted, and there is an absolute ton of blood.  Honestly, there isn't much more you can ask for in an action/horror vampire story.

Unfortunately, this isn't just an action/horror vampire story.  In fact, the first half has very little action or horror at all.  It's a crime yarn that makes a left turn and winds up in the unfamiliar territory of the supernatural action/horror sub-genre.  I'm not complaining, mind you; both halves are very entertaining.  However, the shift in tone, pacing, and style makes this feel like two separate films.  I knew that going into this viewing, but the effect was still jarring.  The first half feels like it could have been taken from leftover Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction scraps (I mean that in a good way), except for the fact that the most likable character (Seth) is obviously a complete bastard, instead of the usual cool-guy-that-does-bad-things type Tarantino usually creates.  The second half doesn't play to Tarantino's strengths, as there is very little dialogue, and even less of it is clever.  The action scenes are staged well, though, and Robert Rodriguez is able to keep the film entertaining, even as is shifts its focus.
He kicks ass for the lord

I'm not saying that From Dusk Till Dawn is a bad movie, but it is far from the best work of either Rodriguez or Tarantino.   Objectively, this movie lacks solid pacing and focus.  The writing is uneven, and the acting takes a back seat to the effects in the second half.  It's fun, but a little empty.  Of course, this film was never meant to be a critical darling.  It feels less like a cool story that the filmmakers really wanted to tell and more like a couple of friends having a blast, making the type of movie that would have blown their minds as teenagers.  In that, they are successful.  This is silly, cheeky, gory, and absolutely ridiculous, which makes it very entertaining, warts and all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

Just over a year ago, I reviewed the original Paranormal Activity; I thought it was a pretty cool flick, although definitely not for all horror tastes.  When I heard that they were making a sequel, I felt it was a little dubious.  What more was there to say about that story?  Wouldn't it be a little forced to get another group of people to film demon/spirit activity in their home?  If absolutely nothing else, the screenwriters did a good job creating a story that makes sense in the bigger picture and fits in nicely with the first film.

Paranormal Activity 2 is actually not entirely a sequel; it spends most of its running time as a prequel, and then provides more closure on the original film.  That's a novel approach, I'll admit.  This time around, the story follows the family of Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and Daniel Rey (Brian Boland), which includes Kristi's step-daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim), and their baby boy, Hunter.
Bad news, kid.  Something is obviously going to happen to your parents.
Weird stuff had been happening in the Rey household for a while --- the pool cleaner would magically leave the pool every night, doors would open or close on their own, pots would fall from their kitchen hooks, etc. --- but one day they came home to a ransacked house.  Oddly enough, nothing of value was taken.  Being an obviously wealthy guy, Daniel pays to have security cameras set up in the house.  No further "break-ins" happen, but the weird shit continues.  At first, it is easy to ignore these titular acts, but they get harder to rationalize as time goes on and the actions get more violent.  By the time the family has bought into the idea of a demon spirit terrorizing their home, it's almost too late.  What do you do if a demon won't leave you alone?  There really doesn't appear to be a good answer to that.
Peeing in the pool is not a solution

So how does this tie into the first film?  Well, Kristi is the sister of Katie from the original movie.  Katie and her boyfriend, the obnoxious Micah, have a few scenes in this movie, including a stretch where the first couple of minutes from Paranormal Activity are actually spliced into Paranormal Activity 2.  Basically, this story shows how the demon wound up terrorizing Katie and Micah and what happened next.  That's a solid concept, right?  Well, I thought so.

I also liked the characters in Paranormal Activity 2 better than in the original.  Sure, Daniel is a bit of a jackass, but he's not constantly annoying like Micah.  I also liked the addition of a third character to the mix, even if Ali was far too pleasant around her parents to be believed.  The acting was pretty decent all around, but this type of movie doesn't spend much time with the acting, so neither will I.
A teenager that likes being filmed by her father?  Fiction!

With an interesting premise and pretty likable characters, it would seem that Paranormal Activity 2 would be as good or better than the first movie.  It is not.

For starters, this film operates with the understanding that it is just assembled from "found" footage, taken from security cameras and home videos.  In the first film, there was a reason for them to be videotaping everything; well, two reasons: Micah was an annoying jackass and he wanted to capture some X-Files moments on tape.  There is absolutely no reason the Rey family should record themselves this much.  None.  Even the most YouTube-ing tween doesn't record themselves answering the front door or doing internet research.  It just feels so unnatural for these people to be videotaping stressful, emotional conversations that it ruins my suspension of disbelief.  And what is wrong with this family?  When you're waiting for nothing to happen, they are spending their free time...reading?  Really?  In America?  An entire family?  I love to read, but...come on, let's be realistic and show that 60" flat screen being used more than once a month.

The other problem is with the film style.  Following up and tying into a movie that had a very distinctive look, it is no surprise that Paranormal Activity 2 mimics a lot of the visuals from Paranormal Activity.
You can tell it's the sequel because it has a crib
I'm fine with that.  What I can't stand is the way this film misuses this style.  The first film worked so well because it fast-forwarded through the boring parts and slowed down only when some creepy stuff was about to go down, which caught my attention and had me ready to be startled.  This film doesn't do that (except once, I think).  It might feel like nothing is happening on camera, and that is because it is not.  The first hour of this movie positively drags and there is only one decent-sized startling scare in that entire time.

I don't know what director Tod Williams was thinking.  The pace was so awful in this movie that I have a hard time admitting that the last twenty minutes are fairly cool.  Since the actors just have to act like normal folks and the film style is dictated by the format, Williams should have been able to focus on making this as tense as possible.  Instead, he opted to...well, I'm not exactly sure what he did instead.  All I know is that this is nowhere near as freaky as it should be.
This is about as much action as you'll get in PA2

It's all well and good to criticize a movie, but could I have done any better?  Absolutely.  There is a point where Daniel turns the proverbial corner and decides to believe in demons.  How do you protect your family from such a threat?  The solution that he comes with (SPOILER ALERT: passing the demon on to Kristi's unsuspecting sister, Katie, ensuring her death) is horrifying enough to warrant being the plot device for an entire film.  Here, it takes less than three minutes.  If they cut twenty minutes of nothing happening from the first two-thirds of the movie, this soul-wrenching, morally destitute decision would have had the time and space to breathe and draw the audience in.  Instead, we get an hour of doors opening slightly and twenty minutes of action that assumes that the audience saw the first film --- otherwise, the ending is pretty awful.  And if you saw the original ending of the first film (not the theatrical one), it is an impossible ending.  I was encouraged by a lot of things in this movie, but it buckled under the pressure to be the same (but different) from the more successful original.  It's not awful, but it was a boring disappointment for me.

One more note: I have to admit, using the phrase "Release the Kraken" as a sexual metaphor is awesome.  That is all.

The Return of the Living Dead

By the time The Return of the Living Dead hit theaters in 1985, George Romero had already completed his original zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead).  What more was there to do or say about zombies?  Romero had set the standard for zombie gore (with the assistance of Tom Savini), tackled social commentary, and made some of the coolest depressing horror movies out there.  Who would have the balls to follow up Romero's series?  As it turns out, the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead, John Russo, that's who.  Apparently, he and Romero had argued over how to follow up their cult hit and came up with an interesting compromise; Romero's sequels would be "Blank of the Dead" and Russo's would be "Blank of the Living Dead."  Each series follows its own continuity, but neither contradicts the other; these are two very parallel realities.  Once I figured out who would follow up Romero's Dead pics, the question remained: how?  The answer is "with humor."

On Freddy's (Thom Mathews) first day working for the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse, he is being shown the ropes by Frank (James Karen).  Uneeda's main business comes from shipping corpses, skeletons, and similar dead things across the country.  As part of the natural order of breaking in the new guy, Frank decides to creep Freddy out.  Frank explains that the movie, Night of the Living Dead, is based on true events; the movie changed the facts to not get sued, of course, but the gist remained the same --- the dead were coming back to life.  How does Frank know all this?  Because the military accidentally shipped a barrel of the chemical (245 Trioxin) to Uneeda, and you can see an undead body inside.  Obviously, Freddy will need to see the barrel to believe any of this, so the two go down to the basement to check it out; sure enough, there is a metal barrel with military-looking words on the side, and a skeleton visible through the barrel's window.  So far, so good.  Frank then makes the fatal error of hitting the side of the barrel to demonstrate how sturdy it is, which causes a rupture and Frank and Freddy get hit with a heavy dose of gas.

From this point forward, you really don't need to know the specifics of the plot, but here's the gist.  The gas reanimates the dead, and these zombies don't resemble the classic film zombies.  They can run, speak, think, and you can't kill them by damaging the brain (or cutting off the head, or dismembering them, or...).  Freddy, Frank, and their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), manage to get the sole corpse in their freezer chopped up into little pieces, but the pieces are still writhing and dangerous.  Since Burt is friends with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), they take the body parts over and eventually convince Ernie to cremate the SOB.  As soon as the ashes leave the crematorium chimney, though, they react with the clouds above and start an acid rain, which spreads Trioxin throughout the area --- and keep in mind that the area around a mortuary/crematorium is naturally going to be a graveyard.  Yes, there will be zombies a-plenty.
Sexy zombies

The first thing you will notice about The Return of the Living Dead is that it doesn't take itself seriously.  At all.  The characters are all fairly stupid and no one is particularly likable, so you are just waiting to see how each one dies.  And they die, early and often.  That is a far cry from the somber tenseness of George Romero's films, but it works surprisingly well.  This isn't a flat-out comedy with zombies in it, like Shaun of the Dead.  This is a horror movie that wants to revel in gore and special effects, but still have fun doing it.  You don't see movies like this made any more (with the possible exception of Black Sheep), and it was a welcome change from so many of the not-scary-but-not-fun horror movies I've watched this month.
Fact: eyeballs are the last things to rot

Even though they are all second rate actors, I enjoyed the cast of The Return of the Living Dead.  There are no good performances in this movie, but there were a many enjoyable ones.  The featured adults (James Karen, Clu Gulanger, and Don Calfa) weren't terribly exciting, but they served their purpose as authority figures.  Thom Mathews wasn't great, either, but it was fun seeing him slowly transition into a zombie.

It's called "range"
The rest of the cast was made up of young actors in various youthful costumes.  You could lump them all together as "punks," but it's probably more accurate to describe them as "victims of 80s fashion." 
These guys are the reason this movie is so enjoyable.  Each one is a poorly sketched and developed character, and each one is annoying in their own right.  They have names like Suicide, Trash, Spider, and Scuz.  Suicide hates everything, the guy with the leisure suit wants to get laid, and the girl punk, Trash (Linnea Quigley), just wants to party naked.  Seriously, she's naked (aside from her legwarmers) for all but the first few minutes of this movie --- definitely the most full nudity I have seen from any actor in any movie, including some pornos. 
One of only two clothed pictures I could find online
To give you an idea of the level of talent in this film, three of these actors (Mathews, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., and Mark Venturini) were featured in the Friday the 13th series.  'Nuff said.

The special effects are actually pretty solid for being such a silly movie.  Of course, skeletons rising from the grave is goofy as all hell, and a lot of the recently dead didn't require much makeup, but there are a few awesome standouts. 
There is a lot of gore in this movie.  Bodies get slashed to pieces.  Brains get chewed.  Eyes get blinded by acid.  Fake blood is plentiful.  While certainly not realistic, the quantity and quality of the gore in this zombie movie cannot be knocked.

This is only one of two films directed by Dan O'Bannon, and I think he did a good job with what he was working with.  Of course, he radically rewrote John Russo's original script beyond the point of recognition, so he had complete control over what he had to work with.  Still, O'Bannon created a zombie movie that was markedly different in tone and internal logic from the Romero films.  That, alone, is an accomplishment.  The fact that he made watching people get torn apart genuinely entertaining is just icing on the cake.

If you are a huge fan of Romero's movies, The Return of the Living Dead might annoy you.  Zombies that can speak, plot, and run don't really make much sense.  I get that.  However, I don't care.  This is one of the few zombie movies out there that is jam-packed with action and doesn't take itself seriously.  For what it is --- a fun, utterly disposable horror flick --- it's pretty good.  It even has the distinguished honor of being the first film to feature zombies craving human brains.  Is this a classic?  I don't know if I'd go that far.  Aside from the naked chick and a couple of the zombies, nothing will really stick with you after you finish the movie.  On the other hand, I seriously doubt that this was intended to be a think piece.  Appreciate it for what it is.