Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: Alien

 There are a handful of horror films which I consider my favorites.  Alien is very near the top of that list.

 To fully be appreciated, I think it is necessary to understand the landscape in which Alien arose.  Two years before its release, Star Wars had blown the minds of most of the world.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released that same year.  Both of these films presented the alien from outer-space as mysterious, potentially dangerous, but ultimately familiar, comprehensible, and even friendly to mankind.  

 The modern revision of most fairy-tales we are familiar with presents something just outside our common experience, working for the good or ill of man, which a hero ultimately deals with leading to a happy ending.  Most fairy-tales in their original, however, were far darker stories meant as warnings not to stray to far from the well lit and traveled path.  Alien is a dark fairy-tale, like those of old, a warning that the unknown is likely to be hostile to our intervention.  No matter how advanced we may become, there will always be something which we cannot understand, which cannot be negotiated with, and wishes nothing but harm.

So happy to see you that you get a hug!
 The Nostromo is a towing vessel assigned to retrieve a deep-space mining rig and return it to near-Earth space.  On the way, the ship's computer detects a signal that appears to be from an intelligent source.  It changes course and wakes the crew from cryo-sleep to investigate.  While I won't get fully into the hints of conspiracy that are present here and explored in later films, there is the suggestion that they are well off-course, almost to the point that the ship's route would have had to have been changed to encounter the signal in the first place.

Don't order the special.
 The unnamed planet has a hostile, but not impassible environment.  The crew takes The Nostromo down and discovers and alien vessel with what appears to be a long-dead pilot who died violently.  In what may be the cargo-hold, hundreds of leathery eggs  stand covered in a strange mist.  Kane, one of the ship's pilots, studies one of the eggs as it opens, releasing a crab or spider-like alien with a long, prehensile tale that punches through his environmental-suit visor and attaches itself to his face.

 The crew discovers, in short time, that this was just the beginning of their nightmare.

In about 3 years, they will give you E.T. to take the nightmares away.
 The film's strength is in its direct appeal to the pathos of the viewer.  The score is almost always present and often barely audible, remaining ominous throughout the film and underscoring the tension that builds throughout.  Like the horror films of the past, the filmography relies more on what is unseen, even with an award winning  visual effects including the set and creature design by H.R. Giger and costume designs by Moebius.  One of the most iconic monsters in modern horror films spent the majority of the first film hiding in dark corners and seen only in brief flashes or extreme close-ups.  Director Ridley Scott gave each of the seven actors a back-story about their characters and held several improvisational rehearsals to help generate familiarity and tension among them.  Each of the characters are easy to identify with, just working-class people trying to get home.  Nothing spectacular sets them apart from anyone else, which means it could literally be any one of us on that ship.  

Underwear in space.  Someone needs to tell Carrie Fisher.
 The special effects and set-designs were on the leading edge of the industry at the time.  The chest-buster scene has become a part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, even those who have never seen the film recognize it in parody.  The acting is excellent throughout.  I have read some sources that suggest that some of the emotional tension was not an act, that Scott kept the actors awake for long periods of time and intentionally harassed them in order to keep the convincingly frazzled.

Sets like this win awards.
 The story's deepest strength is that it is one of the prime myths of humanity, akin to the tale of Gilgamesh.  The small and fragile band of humans are harried by a monster, a dragon or serpent of old, deep in the wilderness and far from civilization.  The monster means to destroy them, and it is up to one of them to discover their internal heroism and face the monster as well as their own fears.  In this tale, the princess and the hero happen to be one-and-the-same, the character Ripley.  The death of the alien itself even mirrors the Gilgamesh epic.  It is one of our oldest tales, an archetype that is one of the deepest roots of our mythology.

 Alien stands apart from all other films about monsters in space, including its own sequels and spin-offs. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movie Review: Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!

 You know what you are getting into before you even start the film.  It's a low-budget film ($30,000) about zombies, strippers, drugs, and prostitutes.  You can safely assume you will not be watching the next horror-masterpiece. That said, Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! is moderately entertaining and not nearly as bad as you might expect.

 The film makes use of four sets to tell the story; the strip club, a diner, a laboratory, and a street.  The set-up is simple enough, a local scientist is striving to develop a cure for cancer by creating an "anti-cancer" cell, a cell that copies and regenerates lost cells.  As a favor to a friend, he has also made a synthetic drug that mimics the effects of crack-cocaine without the addictive and harmful qualities.  One night at the lab, a mishap results in the two experimental compounds being mixed, and the addict unknowingly distributes the tainted drug to some local prostitutes.

 The prostitutes have an ongoing rivalry with the strippers at the local club.  There appears to be some history between the two groups; one of the stripper may have worked for pimp Johnny "Backhand" Vegas in the past, and one of the prostitutes is a former stripper or former friend of one of the strippers. The two crews mix it up at the local diner, where the debate between who is "better" seems to rage each evening.  A couple of the prostitutes have partaken in the tainted drug, and during what was about to become a brawl in the diner parking-lot they turn into flesh-eating zombies.  The survivors retreat to the strip-club and barricade themselves inside.  Outside, the zombies attack anyone who shows up in the parking lot, resulting in an increasing number of zombies to await additional victims and to pound on the doors of the club.

Seems legit.
Tits of the damned!
Despite the blood and gore, you can still smell the skank on them.
 The acting is, in a word, bad.  A few of the actors manage to be convincing in their roles.  Having never dealt with a pimp, I can't be certain if the Johnny character is over-the-top or typical for a pimp.  He is obnoxious to a fault, and you can tell in his "death" scene that the writers and director intend for you to relish his demise.  Dakota, one of the stripper, is openly a bitch, but manages to feel some remorse about being a bitch by the end of the film.  The female protagonist, Dallas, is so much the stereotype that she nearly vanishes from interest when compared to the other, more fractured characters.

 The traditional special effects are passable, nothing spectacular as far as zombies are concerned but better than some films.  The CGI is at times laughable, in particular the zombie explosions.  Except for the climax of the film, there really is no CGI to speak of (barring a few head-shots and dismemberments), so the CGI at the climax really stands out.  Most of the money for this film appears to have gone to special effects and topless actresses, but you can tell that the intro and outro credits cost a pretty penny. 

 Despite how bad the film is, I recommend watching though the credits for the "bonus" scene.  It is more of the same, but at least there is a solid effort at humor in it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Moview Review: Burn, Witch Burn

 While watching this film, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching an episode of The Twilight Zone.  It wasn't just the similarity in production, the film was shot in 1962 when The Twilight Zone was at its peak.  Both share similar film techniques such as the use of inky-black scenes and forced perspective.  What really locks the comparison in for me is that, like The Twilight Zone, we have the world as we know it running along what we assume is its normal and rational course only to uncover that the world is far more weird and fantastic that we could imagine.

 Norman Taylor is a professor at prestigious college who gives classes on what appears to be philosophy and critical thinking.  His opening class is about the fallacy of superstition and his premise that superstition derives its power from belief; if you do not believe then the superstition has no power over you.  He is young, popular, and is quickly moving up the ranks in the college, bucking for a promotion to a seat as head of his department.  He and his wife, Tansy, are new to the area, but engage in all the right social functions with the other professors and administrators of the college.  

Real men wear their waistbands around their navels.
 Tansy, unlike Norman, is not skeptical about the supernatural.  In fact, her secret (and possibly the secret to Norman's success) is that she practices witchcraft learned from a shaman while she accompanied her husband on an anthropological study.  She uses the magic to protect herself and her husband as well as ease their advancement in society.  She discovers that a dark power is conspiring against them, and does what she can to keep it at bay.

 However, when Norman discovers his wife's secret hobby, he hits the roof, insisting she burn all her protective trinkets and magical wares.  Immediately, they fall under assault from the forces that oppose them, and Norman quickly must come to terms with his disbelief and discover who is behind these attacks.  

He's beginning to re-think this whole "skeptic" thing.
 The film does plod along a bit.  Norman seems to vacillate between belief and disbelief instead of simply accepting the evidence after the 2nd or even 3rd incident.  The story does a good job of flirting with his wife Tansy being the antagonist as well before revealing the true nemesis.  The acting seems a little over-the-top at times, but that seems to be just how things were done in the 1960s, lots of drama.

Of all the ways to kill yourself...
 Burn, Witch Burn is a classic horror film meant for the more high-brow set.  While not overly interesting for any particular aspect of the film, it is worth watching.

Movie Review: Pleasures of the Damned

 The budget to make this film was $2000.


 The horror genre is unique in that an awful horror-film can be considered a success based on just how bad it was.  You cannot do that with other genres.  A bad comedy is just not funny.  A bad drama is boring.  A bad horror-film, however, can be HILARIOUS.

 Pleasures of the Damned is what happens when some guys with a minimal budget, a minimal amount of special effects know-how, and a lot of time on their hands decide to make a film.  IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE BAD.  That is the whole point, and its appeal.  It is a parody, a spoof, something to watch while drunk with friends just to see if they can appreciate just how awful this film is.

 The set-up is great.  In the 1970s an Italian film-maker makes this film, Pleasures of the Damned, and then spends a few decades in prison before he can release it.  Now, the film has been re-mastered and released to the public. 

This is the only nudity in the film, so enjoy it.
 Which is of course a lie.

 A bunch of guys, most in cheap wigs (and not like "oh it's too bad they didn't spend money on a better wig" but "OH MY GOD THAT IS OBVIOUSLY A CHEAP WIG), are a Satan-worshiping biker-gang.  I don't think there is a motorcycle in the whole film.  It's the 1970s, except many of the cars and items used in the film are modern.  The biker-gang is a cell in a larger organization that includes a more typical cult lead by an enigmatic, sexually ambiguous character who maintains a stable of followers/slaves.  I am fairly certain that at least two actors play this character during different scenes in the film.

Wigs... wigs everywhere.
 The film is dubbed-over with a painfully out-of-sync voice-track, again adding to just how successful the crew was in producing a "bad" film.  Most of the film is shot in the backrooms of a couple of houses or out in the woods somewhere, and involves a lot of ridiculous conversation and close-ups of the actors.  The film includes a schlock filming enhancement called "psycho-vision" which is warned to alter the senses of the viewer during particular scenes and comes with an auditory cue before the film goes to a red monotone and flashes a negative of the image, mocking the "trippy" film enhancements attempted in the 1970s.

Seems legit.
 All the nonsense of the film really only showcases the one scene where real money was probably spent.  This is when one of the female protagonists bites off and spits out the penis of her assailant her forced her to perform fellatio.  Making a bloody severed penis and paying an actress to simulate a blow-job and spit the FX item on to the ground is probably where most of the money was spent.

 If you have an hour-and-a-half to waste, and some friends with a sick sense of humor, this film could be a good time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Movie Review: Case 39

 Emily is a Child Protective Service worker with a huge workload.  Her work keeps her from having a deeper relationship with her child-psychiatrist boyfriends, and she is almost at her limit when her boss gives her yet another case to work, her 39th case.  

 The case involves Lilith, a 10 year-old girl who's grades have slipped from A's to D's in the last 3 months and who is withdrawn from her fellow students.  While there are no signs of physical abuse, Emily is sent to investigate the possibility of mental abuse or neglect.  The in-home interview goes badly, Lily's mother and father are less-than forthcoming and helpful.  When they are called into the office, however, they attempt to play the interview off as a misunderstanding.  Lily, in a moment alone with Emily, confides that her parents are planning to hurt her, but when she is asked to make a recorded statement she refuses.  

 Something about this case concerns Emily, even though her boss says there is nothing they can do.  She meets Lily after school and gives Lily her home phone-number.  Lily calls the night she thinks her parents are going to hurt her as she apologizes for falling asleep.  Emily contacts her police-detective friend and they arrive just in time to rescue Lily from being roasted alive in her parent's oven.  

Puberty is a bitch.
 Lily's parents go to prison, and Lily makes it clear that she wants to live with Emily.  After some bureaucratic wrangling, Emily gets temporary custody of Lily.  At first, things seem to go well.  Then, people start dieing, and it becomes ever more clear that Lily is not at all what she seems.

 Case 39 is a good film. Renee Zellweger plays a convincing social worker, and is supported by a strong case, including Bradley Cooper and Jodell Ferland.  The cinematography is top-notch, and because of the kind of film it is what little special effects are required were well done.  The film reminds me a lot of The Omen, with exception of the child being older and fully aware of its nature.

There are certain parts of town you don't eat in.
 My only real concern about the film is, once again, we have this powerful being who manages to disguise itself and insinuate itself amongst its victims by appearing innocent.  If that is the case, why ever reveal yourself?  Why not continue to simply be a victim of strange circumstances and coincidences?  While that may be part of the demon's destructive process, doing so also endangers the monster.  Also, its powers seem to be inconsistent.  One moment it is pounding through a bolted wood door, the next it is capable of only casting illusions to confuse its victims.  Which is it.

 It was rated 'R', but 'PG-13" would probably be make more sense.  It is an interesting story, but not terribly frightening.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Review: Nine Dead

 Another Saw rip-off?  Not quite.

 Nine seemingly random strangers are attacked and abducted by a hooded figure wearing mask.  They find themselves in an empty room together each hand-cuffed to a different pole.  Their captor explains that they must discover what links them all and why they are here.  He will kill one of them every 10 minutes until they do or they are all dead.  If they figure it out, the survivors go free and he will confess to his crimes.

 So, this is billed as a horror film, but there wasn't really anything that scarey about it.  No torture devices, no monster, no demonic forces... Just a lunatic with a gun and nine people who are more messed-up than they care to admit to strangers.  Had Saw not been made, this film would have probably been considered an interesting short dramatic story.

All these people suck.
 The story is interesting and arguably well written, unlike some of the hack-kneed Saw rip-offs it follows.  The acting is also fair, although this is clearly meant to be a vehicle for Melissa Joan Hart to step beyond her Sabrina the Teen Witch days.  The films is simple, and its simplicity has some merit.  It is shot almost entirely in the one room occupied by the characters and is each character is shot there is a minimal need for special effects.  The story is carried almost entirely by the actors ability to portray their characters and react to the situation.

This is as scarey as it gets.
 That said, Nine Dead is not a great film.  The negative aspect of its simplicity is that it is at times boring.  You don't really get to know any of the characters, other than discovering you don't like them and they all deserve to die... not for their crimes but for simply being annoying.  Granted, you may only have 10 minutes to get to know each of them, but the amount of egoism in one room seems a little unbelievable.  It is as if posturing between some of the characters was more important than their mutual survival.  

 Also, we have Melissa Joan Hart's character's rape.  It has nothing really to do with the story.  The character confesses to being raped; assaulted in a parking lot, taken into a van, beaten, clothes "ripped off", and raped.  She recovers, grabs a baseball bat that was in the van, and beats her rapist to death.  The beating is depicted, showing the character bloodied and dirty, beating something just off-screen.  The problem is, she is fully clothed.  She was just beaten and raped, but before grabbing the bat and retaliating against her attacker she puts on her pants, bra, and a shirt.  

 People who expect some continuity to their murder confessions will be taken right out of the film there.  

 You can skip this one.   

Monday, November 5, 2012

Movie Review: Insidious

 If you are a fan of horror films, this is simply a must see.  Insidious does what horror films from Hollywood have not done in a long time, gives you a new take on a classic concept and scares the hell out of you in the process.

 Insidious has all the earmarks of a classic horror film.  The story BUILDS to its final crescendo.  The viewer is first taken into familiar territory.  A young family has moved into a new home where strange things begin to happen.  There is an incident with one of the children, leaving him in an inexplicable coma.  The mother begins seeing and hearing increasingly more disturbing things, with her comatose son seeming to be in the center of these events.

 At this point you say to yourself "Ah, I see.  This is like Poltergeist."  Then, the family moves.  They no longer live on the "Indian burial ground".  The assaults from the other side, however, do not abate.  In fact, they grow more intense, and it is suggested that the comatose boy may be the cause.

 "Ah, I see," you are encouraged to think.  "This is going to be like The Exorcist."
Twins.  Always creepy.  Unless its porn.

 Wrong again. This film actually weaves together a tapestry of different ideas into a compelling theory, and works enough twists into the telling of its tale to keep you guessing... and perhaps make you check the dark corners of your room before going to bed at night.

 This is not the typical haunted house/ghost story.  

Who you gonna call?  These guys.
 James Wan masterfully directs this tale, creating an atmosphere that makes the viewer afraid of what they are not seeing.  Much of the film is shot almost in total darkness, with only the music, sound of movement, and the breathing of the actors suggesting what is going on.  The special effects are artistically understated, relying more on the tried-and-true psychological impact of classic horror-film techniques to let the mind create what is not presented.  The actors all do a fine job with their roles, presenting their characters in a sympathetic and manner the audience can relate to.  The way the film is shot and the tale is told results in a PG-13 film that actually has no need for the gore that would have resulted in an 'R' rating.  

Refugee from a retirement home.
 The only downside may be the "reveal" at the midway point of the film.  For some geeks (like myself), the explanation is intriguing, but the way it is then applied and portrayed in the film is lackluster.  One might argue that the scope of this concept would be difficult for anyone to describe on film, especially while keeping to the parameters established by the first half of the film, but it does take you out of the film somewhat.

 This aside, the film is still wonderfully entertaining and frightening.  I hope they don't screw it up with Insidious 2.