Wednesday, March 24, 2010

(a dozen brief horror movie reviews)

Some notes on a few horror DVDs I've explored lately, most of which are recent and should be easily findable...

Left Bank (aka Linkeroever) : "country matters" abound in this artful feminist-friendly Belgian film, focusing on a driven young woman's ambivalence about her gender-heritage. Weird Pagan flourishes are welcome, including a hole in the ground known as Satan's vagina or somesuch, which is not the only time the film riffs on the whole womb-as-tomb thing (so well-represented by Townes Van Zandt's "The Hole," but far more interesting as an object of female dread than male). Neither very suspenseful or scary, but idea-rich, beautifully shot, and moody. Highly recommended if that's your cup of meat. Still from Sauna

Sauna: a Finnish/Russian co-production about guilt, punishment, and sin, apparently made by horror geeks who have had their metaphysical ambitions tickled by Tarkovsky's Stalker. Some interesting visuals, but it's neither horrific enough for horror fans nor meaningful or artful enough for the arthouse crowd, and not likely to satisfy people who appreciate an elegantly-structured, coherent narrative. Al Mader, aka the Minimalist Jug Band, recently observed to me that calling a movie "ambitious" is usually a negative thing, meaning it doesn't live up to its promise or its pretenses; this film is definitely ambitious in that sense, but tries so hard that I never gave up wanting to like it until right near the very end.

House Of The Devil: Ti West, who is being hailed as the next big hope for horror and, I think, is working regularly for Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, has probably made better films, but what starts out seeming an overly slow thriller ends up generating an impressive level of suspense, as a babysitter in an isolated house wanders blissfully ignorant from room to room - except for the one upstairs where the Really Bad Things have happened. I don't usually feel the need to turn off a horror movie and do something else because I'm too unsettled to continue, but this film had that effect on me, making my own environment feel decidedly unsafe. Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov - whom I for one have not seen for years and find delightful and sexy still - are utterly great and should be paired in more films, and West offers many inspired directorial flourishes, but the film ultimately disappoints; when the promised Really Bad Things arrive, it's just the rather uninspired having-Satan's-baby routine (yawn). Plus, the film hints in its opening titles that it's going to have a conspiracy angle - namely the connection between Satanic ritual abuse and covert government mind-control programs - which it doesn't deliver on in the slightest. Worth a look, tho'; it makes me curious to see more of Ti West's movies, since I rather suspect he's capable of better.
The Midnight Meat Train: Clive Barker is great at coming up with interesting ideas, scenes, and creatures, but - at least the last time I checked in, many moons ago - is often godawful as a craftsman, both in writing and cinema; unlike Stephen King, who generally can engage readers in his worlds and the characters who inhabit them while seldom seeming to have much of interest to say, Barker's novels, at their weakest, read like rushed schematics, with dialogue, description, and action all too obviously nailed (with near-audible hammer-blows) to the thematic concerns that Barker presumably begins with. His works inspire admiration perhaps for their inventiveness or subversiveness, but seldom for character development, narrative structure, or believabilty, and from what I saw when I actually paid attention to him, his ability to control his material seemed to be lessening exponentially as both his ego and his novels grew in size. (Perhaps I should actually read something of his from the last 20 years before I say that?). Rightly or not, I suspect that he was never better represented as a writer than by the short stories in his (very early) Books Of Blood. I have not seen the recent adaptation of the title story from that series, but I did check in with The Midnight Meat Train, made by the same people from one of those stories and hailed as the best Barker adaptation since Hellraiser. It's certainly the most finely wrought, since Barker himself (whose Nightbreed in particular I retain considerable fondness for, despite its myriad failures) had nothing to do with it, but it ultimately disappoints. It has some delightfully homicidal moments, with Vinnie Jones being picture-perfect as a dour butcher who slaughters people on a special late train as a sort of side-job. He's spied upon by a photographer whose ambitions and voyeuristic drive to see the worst of the city drag him deeper and deeper into the vileness at its heart. It's fairly obvious that the film will have us become what we behold, but the film climaxes in silly Barkerian pseudoprofundity ("there is an ancient bloody side to humankind that must be appeased with ritual sacrifice") instead of a jarring confrontation with our own darkness, voyeuristic tendencies, or what-have-you (see Hostel 2 for that). Not good enough to actually recommend, but worth a look if you're curious.

Still from The Midnight Meat Train

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: Speaking of both Eli Roth and Ti West, seeing that it was the only other film credited to Ti West in the suburban video store I frequent, I bought - based on West's name alone - a PV'd version of the sequel to Cabin Fever. It seemed a tad risky, since I'd read nothing about the film, but I remember thinking, "Surely with West's name on it, it must have some redeeming virtues; if it's some monstrosity where the producers have stepped in and mangled the film beyond recognition, he surely is artist enough and protective enough of his brand's cachet that he would have removed his name from the credits." Those familiar with the film's sad history are already chuckling, since in fact West did try to Alan Smithee the thing, after it had gotten taken away from him, to find his contract did not permit it; he has disowned the movie publicly, nonetheless... The film is a sequel to Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. Roth's Hostel 2 is probably my favourite exploitation film of the 21st century and politically a very thought-provoking film, done a horrible injustice by the term "torture porn." However, I didn't particularly care for Roth's debut, the original Cabin Fever movie, which seemed mostly like juvenile low-budget misanthropy, largely revolving around the stigmatization of the sick. While absolving Roth and West of any wrongdoing, I had even less respect for the sequel, which shows the virus spreading throughout a rural high school during prom night. There's some inspired gore (including what may be the best human roadkill scene since Long Weekend and a blood-spurting Larry Fessenden in a bit part) but the film is narratively incoherent, has a uniformly unappealing array of high school stock characters who are somewhat less fully developed than those in your average Archie comic, and cracks such stupid, gross, and politically insensitive jokes that you end up feeling offended to be addressed thus, and depressed by how base the makers apparently take the viewers to be. There's a big difference between a film that is cynical about humanity and a film that is made cynically; this is the latter, and worth avoiding.

Deadgirl: by contrast, Deadgirl is a finely wrought and creepy film that makes its high school characters seem fully human and believable, if still pretty goddamn all-round distasteful. It's got enough weird integrity and craft to it that I don't really mind that it makes a fairly hateful - if at least partially accurate and recognizable - statement about male sexuality. The story involves a group of lower class male teens who take up, uhh, zombie necrophilia as an alternative to facing a life of sexual rejection, evoking texts as dissimilar as Cormac McCarthy's Child Of God and the Polish cult film Deep End, with perhaps a pinch of Revenge Of The Nerds, minus the humour. The words "zombie necrophilia" suggest something far less sophisticated than this film offers, even if it's ultimately not much more than an interesting and unusually artful exploitation film. My one quibble is that it flinches on gore - it NEEDED to show that jock's cock getting chewed through by the zombie gal; the film would have been better if it pushed the envelope just a little further into horror porn (cf. the severed cock in the female coming-of-age/ vagina dentata film Teeth or the stunning castration that climaxes Hostel 2; you can't really do castration or genital mutilation in a film if you're afraid of the censors). Still, it's an unsettling and unusual movie, one that I would be reluctant to share with a girlfriend, if I had one.

By the way, no shots of the castration scene in Hostel 2 could be found to illustrate the above, but I did encounter this image of Eli Roth's gigantic prosthetic penis. Could someone explain what the fuck is going on?

Still from Deadgirl

Untraceable: probably the high watermark in serial-killer as artist/moral instructor genre was Seven, with the Saw films as its mutant exploitation bastards. Untraceable uses this genre - which I confess to being somewhat weary of - to focus on a particular category of human vice that our killer finds objectionable: the trivialization of death and suffering that proliferates in the darker corners of the internet (like, say, the various dead bodies, illnesses, & injuries treated as entertaining spectacle on sites like To this end, the killer devises a website that actually kills people - "," which shows a live feed of a person who will be tortured to death at a rate depending on the number of hits the site gets. It's a novel idea and perfectly realized by Gregory Hoblit, who also made the somewhat more vital thriller Fracture; it in no way transcends its genre, and ends up being too finely-honed for its own good, with few images that disturb or unsettle sufficiently to make a lasting impact (which is something good horror films really should do)... but it's certainly a respectable entertainment.

Riverman: a rather more naturalistic serial killer film, the made-for-cable Riverman features the consistently interesting Bruce Greenwood as the cop who enlisted the incarcerated Ted Bundy's participation in tracking down the Green River Killer, and ended up getting Bundy to confess to various crimes himself shortly before his execution. Allegedly the case was part of the early inspiration for Thomas Harris' early Hannibal Lecter novels, which the filmmakers might be a little too aware of, since they seem to strain overmuch at times to remind us of Manhunter and The Silence Of The Lambs. That quibble aside, the film mostly avoids various genre pitfalls, managing not to romanticize Bundy - who, as portayed by Cary Elwes, comes across as a rather slimy, attention-hungry, sexually broken manipulator - and never inviting us to enjoy the site of women being victimized; plus it offers a reasonably fresh-feeling take on the "profiler's dilemma" of inviting unwelcome and horrifying thoughts into one's head. Nothing particularly unique is accomplished by Riverman, but sometimes a well-crafted, well-acted story is all that is required.

Dark Water: Hideo "Ringu" Nakata's haunted apartment story, in which a recently divorced mother and her daughter are menaced by a ghostly young girl, is the second scariest Japanese ghost story I've seen after Kiyoshi Kurosawa's existentially unsettling Kairo (AKA Pulse - I have not seen nor will I see the American franchise it spawned, nor the Jennifer Connolly Dark Water adaptation). The film is slow, careful, and highly atmospheric, with the somewhat dilapidated apartment being actually scarier than the apparation that haunts it. What it is actually saying about being either a daughter or a mother I am not entirely sure - I'd have to watch it again - but I loved its ability to bring out the alien, ugly, and menacing in everyday human environments; I liked it far more, even, than Ringu. Unfortunately, the only things I didn't like came right at the end - with an apparently tacked on bit of exposition that suggests someone thought that the film's audience would be too dumb to understand what they'd seen unless quite explicitly told. There's also, as I recall, a nauseatingly and inappropriately sweet pop song over the end credits (why the hell do the Japanese do that, and can someone make them stop?). This is unfortunate, since the last few minutes of a movie do much to determine how you remember it; the film is worth seeing nonetheless.

The Haunting In Connecticut: one of the nice things about the appearance of ghosts in Japanese horror films is that often it's simply the fact that they're fucking ghosts that is scary. A dark apparition in the corner that does not belong to the land of the living is plenty menacing, even if - especially if - it's just sort of standing there, insisting on nothing more frightening than its own presence. The Haunting In Connecticut most unfortunately does not understand this simple principle, and has its ghosts appear in momentary jump-out-and-say-boo flashes, horrifically made-up and accompanied by loud, discordant bursts of music which proceed to swirl unsubtly about the 5.1 sonic space in a creepy, orchestral miasma, sounding rather like the Kronos Quartet with a bad hangover. Such moments are meant to startle, not unsettle, with the ghosts often placed onscreen for the benefit of the viewer, not the characters in the film, who mostly can't see them, as if our identification with said characters was irrelevant - or at least secondary - to our being scared by the ghosts. I somehow doubt that the filmmakers intended this as a Brechtian distanciation device, but it has just that effect - taking us out of the filmic world and reminding us we are watching a movie as surely as if the ghosts had addressed us directly. The house, meanwhile, mostly just gets to be a house; the film utterly lacks the attention to atmosphere that make the environment itself unsettling and alien in Dark Water or, say, in the excellent Brad Anderson film Session 9. No; The Haunting In Connecticut makes its scares far more overt, bordering at times on Grand Guignol, as when the water Virginia Madsen is mopping her floor with suddenly turns to blood or we see the eyelids of desecrated corpses being sliced off in closeup. (There's also some CGI ectoplasm that evokes nothing so much as malignant kelp; unexplained flights of ghost birds; and a vivid illustration of what it looks like when shower curtains attack). All of which does amount to something, actually - a moderately effective ghost story about a family, faced with the oldest boy's cancer, who must right past wrongs in the former funeral home that they've unwittingly moved into, thus healing their son (since this is a mainstream, bigger-budgeted affair that must pay lip service to dominant Christian-cum-New-Age principles and have something like a happy ending). All of this I would have been prepared to live with, if only the story were told with more restraint and sophistication. The cast includes the sexy and under-used Virginia Madsen of Slam Dance and Candyman, a rather wasted performance by Hal Hartley favourite Martin Donovan, and the ever-excellent Elias Koteas as a cancer-ridden priest; I hope his career has not been reduced to taking supporting roles in films like this and imbecilic alien abduction movie The Fourth Kind, which I pillory a few posts back. Ti West has apparently been tapped to direct some sort of loose sequel; here's hoping he gets final cut, since he does know how to do quiet.

Still from The Haunting In Connecticut

No Telling and Corn: These are, thus far, the two best horror films I've yet to see about genetic engineering. The first, an early film of Larry Fessenden's, actually has a nod to Animal Liberation author Peter Singer in the end credits. A couple move into the countryside; she's a painter with an interest in ecology, whereas he's doing medical research for a private corporation, experimenting with grafting techniques that require him to work on live specimens. As his wife flirts with a fellow townie - an environmentalist played by percussionist David Van Tieghem, come to investigate the damaging effects of pesticides on local farms - he decides that he needs larger species to work on than lab mice, and - when chimpanzees he's requested aren't forthcoming - takes matters into his own hands. One of the many interesting things about Fessenden - who has written a primer on low-impact filmmaking - is that he is willing to explore and subvert the genre he works in; when city folk come into the country in horror films, they usually are confronted by rural degeneracy, but No Telling has the city folk pack the degeneracy along with them - which we see also, at least to some extent, in the more conventional urban/rural horror of Wendigo. I liked that his characters seemed real and human enough to have their own trajectories, not enslaved to any particular idea that Fessenden was working through in the plot - tho' they are sometimes used as mouthpieces for the filmmaker's views; and I much preferred Fessenden's conception of the monstrous here to that in Wendigo and The Last Winter (two other idea-rich and worthwhile horror films of Fessenden's that rather err in feeling they need to show us monsters to be effective). My only dissatisfaction with No Telling lies in the ending; having characters that are human enough to be believable is a good thing, but it would have been nice to have more of an idea how the stories of a couple of them resolved; the film ends on a bit of a "that's it?" fizzle, with the wife driving away into an uncertain future. Fessenden's best film remains his vampire film Habit, but I think it's fair to say he's the most interesting horror filmmaker working today. Unfortunately, the DVD of this may be a bit difficult to track down...

Still from No Telling

Corn, by contrast, is a quite a bit more conventional, for both better and worse: a young pregnant woman moves out to the country and discovers horrifying farming practices, involving genetically modified genes in a test crop that are spreading to the weeds and making the sheep that eat them act strangely. She becomes increasingly politicized as she investigates, realizing that something is very wrong - and not only with the corn and the sheep, but possibly with the baby inside her, since she's been eating food from the same farm. The film will likely be more appealing to eco-feminists than hardcore horror fans, who will likely be disappointed by the relative lack of mutant sheep violence - an opportunity that no doubt got wasted due to budgetary constraints. This film, like No Telling, tends to preach to the converted, and is nowhere near as scary as docs like The World According To Monsanto or The Future Of Food, but if you like the idea of a horror film dealing with GMO's, you'll probably appreciate it. And damn, it's a great title for a horror film, eh? Much better than, say, Soybeans.

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