Sunday, October 30, 2016

Trick 'R Treat / *1/2 (2007)

The opening scene of “Trick ‘R Treat” shows a married couple arriving home at the end of a long Halloween celebration in the hopes of settling into less glamorous routines. The husband ventures upstairs and turns on pornography; the wife, eager to remove the decorations littering her front yard, begins the arduous process of dismantling elaborate displays of fake limbs and ghostly figures. A dialogue exchange acts as a shallow warning against the practice; he suggests blowing out the candle on the pumpkin by the gate violates the code of the holiday, which must be followed by fatal consequences. Shortly before she is murdered and disfigured by a figure hiding beneath bed sheets on the lawn, there is a moment where she stops to proclaim, without regret, that she “hates Halloween.” After a few short minutes into the bad movie she is trapped in, we can understand why; to be lost in the meandering chaos of a night like this with little to define the terror itself is a fate worse than any scares that might exist in the shadows. For the audience, the true horror is that anyone involved thinks they are pitching these curve balls for some great purpose.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Serbian Film / no star rating (2011)

There exists a hard, bitter audience for the likes of “A Serbian Film,” one of the most graphic depictions of human suffering I have ever seen committed to the screen. I am not among them. Perhaps that is because I was trained in the more tempered observations of film directors who found horror in the ability to make you jump without expectation, or shrink into your seat while the notes of the screenplay played your emotions through equal measures of silence and dread. Shocking brutality in itself was never enough – it was only the final outlet of the terror, a reason we were so terrified by the idea of evil villains capturing those who were running and screaming in the opposite direction. But for those who will look at Srdjan Spasojevic’s nihilistic plea against the pornography trade and find it engaging outside of the nightmarish cruelty, I salute them: not only do they have the stomachs to stare back at the frames with deadpan focus, they also have the distinction of being the byproduct of irreversible damage to the senses. For that, those individuals earn both my astonished bewilderment and my sincerest condolences.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Evil Dead II / ***1/2 (1987)

To think of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II” as an elaborate exercise in gratuity is to undercut the reason it has so persistently endured in the hearts and minds of its audience, but to see it as some kind of perceptive satire would inspire connotations equally unreasonable. Both classifications suggest the thumbprint of a filmmaker who is either interested in deep irony or complete carelessness, neither of which can be substantiated; while the material certainly carries the aura of both, it is the underlying persistence of joy that dictates the direction of the narrative, a sense that it all must occur in a world so screwball that rationale has been displaced from forlorn considerations. While Raimi was certainly smart enough to fashion his endeavors in the mold of intellectual stimulation, that was never his primary interest; to him a movie camera was a tool to engage in pure celebration of his chosen genre, without all the seriousness or limitations that frequently come with it. And if blood was to splatter elaborately in a few incidental moments, what was the harm in that? Those early philosophies persist because they embody the sentiment that this can, realistically, be all in good fun.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Unfriended / **1/2 (2014)

So rarely has a single genre of movies been as eager to adapt to the shifting dimensions of pop culture as that of horror. With each pass of time comes an eagerness to push the proverbial line of standard – some visual, others thematic – and inevitably the scope of the moviegoer is challenged to see beyond its routine. Oftentimes that requires the abandon of patience or personal judgment, especially when it comes to a concept that may be harrowing to confront. Those that are more interested in pressing on intellectual buttons are much more fun and refreshing to deal with: they understand the possibilities of novel techniques, at least if they are used to creative means. Think of both angles of that prospect as you move cautiously through the material of Leo Gabriadze’s “Unfriended,” a strange film about a vengeful spirit who comes back to haunt – and murder – a group of cyber-bullies who once claimed to be her friends. If one is to mention that the entire endeavor occurs on the computer screen of a teenage girl who flips between social media sites for 83 minutes, would you be annoyed by the concept, or intrigued by the method?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Funny Games / ***1/2 (1997)

The docile family that wanders out of civilization and into a wilderness where they are fated to be stalked and tortured is one of the more prevalent recurring themes of horror films in the modern age, but so few of them make the effort to pierce the membrane in order to revel in the warped ideologies of the villains. Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” a harrowing film, is of that latter sensibility. Audiences inclined to assume the most sensational possibilities are apt to descend into the director’s odyssey fully expecting the most perverse of geek shows, but what they will emerge with is far more rattling: the acknowledgment that seemingly ordinary people from a wealthy class system are capable of causing indescribable harm on others. We don’t just speak of physical harm in the conventional sense here, either; aside from bodily threats that generally lead somewhere unexpected and startling, the movie possesses intimidation, verbal cruelty, pranks, jokes and mind games that have all the characteristics of a sociopath’s behavior – they involve rules made only to satisfy the culprits, because that is in the nature of their game.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" Revisited

“A reminder, and an example, of how today's filmmakers have forgotten about the overwhelming influence seductive imagery can have on an involving story.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

Movie horror began not in the minds of Hitchcock or Castle but in the menacing gazes of early German cinema. Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” usually accepted as the first prominent excursion of this distinction, was filmed and released in 1919 against the trajectory of its time, when those elusive few who actually saw films ought to have been far more enamored by the unsullied awe of moving images. What could have driven a single mind behind the camera to abandon the trajectory of his peers and dive headlong into a world so cynical and haunting, especially after many of his early films – now thought lost – contradicted that impulse? Having just been subjugated by more dominant European powers after the First World War, it was the country in which artists freely abandoned the beckoning of idealism and plunged head-first into the dark corners of the human psyche, effectively creating the tormented soul of German Expressionism. And while conventional wisdom suggests that such a compulsion inspired an uprising of dangerous political minds, it can also be credited with writing the language of the most celebrated of all modern film genres, a categorization of pictures made famous by the prospect of instigating fear the hearts of the audience.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Opera / ***1/2 (1987)

At some point all serious spectators of horror films are destined to explore the trenches of Dario Argento’s catalog. As Italy’s most celebrated impresario of all things artistically macabre, he is a director who does not merely dabble within the traditions of a scary movie: he wraps them in the sort of decisive surrealism that often sits at the edge of our minds, struggling to overtake a thought as it is consumed by visions of blood. To those with morbid curiosity, a filmography that includes the likes of “Suspiria” and “Inferno” doesn’t amount to solitary experiences or even brief sensations. Like mind puzzles, they mean more when allowed to simmer over time instead of being forced through knee-jerk rationale. That can be troubling when one is confronted by the urge to plunge into the membrane of his complicated thinking, and more often than not that leaves more casual viewers with a dizzying conundrum: where in the world should they be expected to start with their education without hitting the wall of alienation? “Opera,” certainly one of the more accessible endeavors in his famous line, remains an ideal launch point for even the most pessimistic of cinematic wanderers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Clown / 1/2* (2016)

One of the tragic realities of horror movies is rooted in the cause of sound moral judgment: a story in which very young children are destined to be slaughtered is rarely deserving of redemption. Varying degrees of that estimation have been seen on the big screen over the years, ranging from minor offenses (“Pet Semetary”) to more garish excursions (“Dinocroc”), but only those that move to the metronome of a compelling perspective can bring those sorts of risks back from the brink of despair. Jon Watts’ “Clown,” recently released after lying dormant in a studio vault for over two years, does something even more unforgivable: it goes well beyond sound psychology and hammers its point right to the spinal column of senseless and graphic cruelty. Thoroughly strange and shocking, the movie tells the story of a man who puts on an old clown costume and discovers, quite unfortunately, that it once belonged to a horrific demon known for devouring children, ultimately cursing him to the fate of possession. Meanwhile the movie exploits the nature of this idea by shamelessly dangling young victims in front of his ravenous face – the first of which is a 4-year old boy, who is so fascinated by the clown before him that he mistakenly attempts to make friends by barging through the front door while running buzz saws are set up the living room. Any further contemplation of this particular scene isn’t just grotesque, but vehemently depressing.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Exorcist II: The Heretic / * (1977)

In reflecting on the experience of moviegoers present for original screenings of “The Exorcist,” one usually forgets the root cause of their trauma: specifically, the fact that so much fear and violence was being orchestrated in the body of an innocent little girl in a tangible reality. Horror films up to the point of the early 70s typically played as open season for the lurid fantasies of filmmakers obsessed with the supernatural and the monstrous, but William Friedkin’s legendary opus represented the unhinged collision of those sentiments, a world in which the demonic energies could manifest in a place as plausible as any number of human stories of the era. As disturbingly convincing as the material played, however, perhaps that represented too great a challenge for the more perceptive directors of the time; against the trend that it would inevitably inspire, a great many years of crude (and usually unsuccessful) experiments followed in its massive shadow, often to the point of box office saturation. Among those failed lessons was one obligatory experiment: a direct sequel, helmed by the great John Boorman, which would document the ongoing struggles of young Regan as she attempted to make it through adolescence while keeping the memories of her possession in some sort of context.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Madman / *1/2 (1981)

The unpleasant, dreary and humorless “Madman” is frequently cited among a handful of early 80s slashers as a genre standard, but it operates on one level that seems lost among its most loyal admirers: as a workshop for Darwinian selection. It was the great naturalist who first suggested the human race was the byproduct of centuries of inherent culling – that over time, a species was destined to conform to the environment it lived in while the inferior genetics would simply be forced to die out. One can argue a horror movie buried in the framework of the dead teenager standard always plays right into this theory, but rarely has it been so obvious, or indeed as unfortunate, as what filmmakers freely put on display here. The characters that populate the foreground of Joe Giannone’s film are suspiciously stupid, even by the measuring stick of his own premise. They barely function as humans, seeming lost in a haze of thoughts that are mechanical and uninformed. Their faces are frozen in confusion. They engage one another like they have no sense of individualism. Their dialogue is forced beyond comprehension, as if assembled by frequent trips down the greeting cards aisle of the Hallmark store. And that of course means they will be ill-prepared when they are required to react during a confrontation with a local legend, a deceased farmer who has returned to form to do away, I guess, with anyone that wanders into the woods he used to live in. Is he a maniac at all, or merely a soldier for evolution?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Red Eye / *** (2005)

Wes Craven’s “Red Eye” begins with an abundance of strategic visual cues that recall the framework of some of the more sensational Hitchcock endeavors: shots of a stolen wallet, a crate of ice aboard a fisherman’s boat, urgent feet peddling through an airport terminal and news broadcasts about vague threats to homeland security. As isolated devices they seem far too fragmented to be congruent, but those well-versed in the language of movie thrillers know they must add up to something – in this case, a plot that must match urgency with underlying political intrigue. But what horrors are we inclined to contemplate, really, when the most threatening exchange occurs in a hotel lobby between an inexperienced clerk and two disgruntled guests? How are we to assume such menace is around the corner when the two leads, a pair of people who seem to meet incidentally at the terminal, share drinks in the bar and exchange stories that seem more like precursors to romantic interest? The genius of Craven’s long-standing affinity for such premises is that he knew exactly how to throw his audience off the scent of the danger, even though his most loyal viewers knew it must be inevitable. How many astute people consciously thought of ensuing violence, mind you, after Drew Barrymore answered a call from a wrong phone number at the beginning of “Scream?”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Cabin Fever / *** (2002)

Most directors of horror films are notoriously suspicious of human behavior. Eli Roth chuckles unsympathetically at their stupidity. That is not unfounded wisdom on any of those in the audience, who must approach a handful of his endeavors from a perspective that must accept the characters as casualties long before they are brought to elaborate slaughter. To see them is also to sense the impassive perspective of young adults in the 21st century, most of whom usually find themselves thrust into dire situations that would normally require years of therapy to recover from (assuming they were to stay alive long enough to book an appointment). Ironically, their director’s goals are much more singular than the contemplation of a reaction in a face: they are more an opportunity for his images to capture the ambitious dexterity of makeup and visual effects artists, many of them credited with some of the most brutal undertakings ever seen on a big screen. And yet one can’t help sense the delightful grinning going on behind the scenes, or the suspicion that crew members look at it all as a devious way to play the audience. There is pleasure in the violence, not any sense of serious deliberation. The approach might be admirable in a Sam Raimi sort of way if it also didn’t feel so utterly nihilistic.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Candyman / ** (1992)

The opening shot of “Candyman” drips with the devious enthusiasm of a great ghost story. During a rather intricate voice-over that suggests ominous meaning for doubters of an urban legend, the sky behind the cityscape of Chicago is seen filling with swarms of bees – a jarring shadow cast over civilized procedure. They symbolize something foreboding: specifically the coming of an entity that once fell victim to them, a young black man at the end of the 19th century whose love affair with a white girl resulted in his merciless death at the hands of violent racists. Those are details that come to light, however, in an investigation nowhere near as compelling as the establishing visuals portray it; told in a style of filmmaking that doubles down as an investigative mystery, what we eventually find ourselves joining in on is an excursion through the lurid nightmares of the low end of the class system, a parable about how belief in the impossible allows it to become an applicable facet of fear and suffering in the modern world. And yet the movie never really has an understanding on what the real evil should be: the villainous visage standing in the shadows, or the social elements that have given him power over the meek and superstitious.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II / * (1987)

Mary Lou isn’t some innocent teenage girl caught in the throngs of high school lust and deception: she’s a vixen preordained to be one of those homicidal sorts frequently seen in mainstream horror movies. Or at least that is what the early trajectory suggests in “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II,” until a disgruntled boyfriend tosses a lit stink bomb down the rafters and sets her on fire, forever cursing her to an afterlife without a prom queen’s crown. But as is the virtue of any living force destined to undo the happiness of others, goals so devious are only delayed instead of thwarted. And though it takes nearly 30 years of death to recharge her vengeful spirit, inevitably she will return to the sight of her demise and exact justice on others, whether they were participants in the tragedy or not. Audiences come to expect that sort of excursion ad nauseam in these sorts of pictures, but for a sequel that follows the footsteps of a rather ordinary teenage formula, what would have been the harm in changing it up a little? The scene of her death is so frustratingly passive that it creates rather persistent paradoxes: no one standing at the site of her demise seems eager to show the slightest interest in rescue, much less mere shock. Perhaps it would give too much credit to a teenage mind, but if I was killed in a fire and all of my classmates just stood by and watched me become a cinder, you can bet that every last one of them would be high priority on a revisit list the moment my ghost form returned to reality.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Prom Night / **1/2 (1980)

I am often amazed at the foolish tricks of absurdity that filmmakers play on their audiences, some of them so obvious that even lesser minds can see through their clichéd reasoning. Think for a moment about this predicament and then dial your mind back to “Prom Night,” one of the early slashers of the 1980s. Here is a movie about a group of kids who wander into an abandoned building, play a rather vindictive game of hide-and-go-seek and then spook the youngest girl into a situation that causes her accidental death. Surprised and dismayed about their situation, the remaining four swear an oath to never speak of their involvement in her fall from an upstairs window, and venture back into their ordinary lives in total silence. The camera briefly spies a shadow standing over the girl’s body to suggest a living eyewitness, and then abruptly advances six years to revisit the participants as they are preparing for their high school prom. Each of them receives an ominous phone call: a voice on the other end offers low growls of doom, and a hand is seen crossing their names off on a checklist. And somehow the audience is expected to believe that all four kids – some of them likable – could actually walk through life for this long without ever confessing their sins, or that their one witness has the patience to wait to a single moment so many years later to exact revenge on them.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Entity / *** (1982)

The horror always arrives in rather dramatic waves. It is never predestined or planned, although isolation appears to be the catalyst for its shameless persistence. “The Entity” by Sidney J. Furie, one of a plethora of forgotten horror films from the early 80s, deals with this scenario on a narrative bedrock that defies mere convention: it tells the story of a woman – ordinary, single and straddled with three young children – who arrives home one evening and finds herself assaulted by an invisible presence in her bedroom. And it is no simple attack she undergoes, either: the nature of it is sexual, and the intensity of the incursion is such that she emerges from it shaken to the core, as shocked as she is violated. Others regard the incident with displaced uncertainty – how can anything happen if no one is in the room? – but here is a woman relatively sane by the measures of her peers, forcing added considerations. Maybe someone was in the room all along that simply waited in the shadows. Maybe the culprit rushed out of sight before witnesses could spot him. Maybe those strange incidents of doors slamming suggest a stalker is hard at work. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something transpiring in her world that defies mere convention, ultimately setting her up for the obligatory guffaws of friends and professionals who assume she is either making it up or acting out from some buried subconscious reasoning.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Don't Breathe / *** (2016)

Theft of one’s property is a usually inspired by some external dilemma undermining the lives of the culprits. Seldom is the conviction spurred by mere greed or foolishness – it often comes from a place of desperation, an inkling to believe there is no way to escape a situation unless another’s money or assets can paint clearer paths through the confusion. Consider, for instance, what it means for young Rocky (Jane Levy) to belong to a trio of professional burglars in “Don’t Breathe” – though her team contains a token tough shot and a shy third wheel with a persistent crush on his female peer, all of her motives lead back to a necessity to escape a troubled family life filled with drugs, abusive stepfathers and prostitution. A ransacking of a stranger’s house is not so much an illegal act as it is an extreme measure that must lead to somewhere other than the cold mean streets of the Midwest, and though brief moments of self-awareness paint those deeds in ambiguity, there is no skepticism strong enough to keep her from that destiny. Surely a middle-income family in the suburbs can do without a few worldly possessions, after all, if it means an unlucky girl in the slums might use them to buy her way out of her own pathos.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Halloween / *** (2007)

Masks are an integral device for the characters in Rob Zombie’s films, a tool that allows their dark agendas to manifest in the comfort of an elaborate masquerade. They seem to be, to them, a protection ward of sorts: to possess one implies that a victim may never be able to connect with the face of the person harming them, an essential function of holding power in a moment of violent aggression. A more revealing display would undermine the point of the pain they inflict. This is not elusive wisdom to any filmmaker that has ever overseen a vehicle involving murderous maniacs who wear such disguises, mind you, but almost always they were simply a ruse to keep audiences from discovering the identity (or at least the face, usually disfigured) of the culprit. But as we gradually move our way through the career of one of the more notable horror film impresarios of the 21st century, deeper reasons behind the implication are now at the forefront of discussion, and the line separating a dependable gimmick from its underlying psychology is gradually fading into the reveries of the past. Now it is hard to watch any film about such villains without instantly thinking of how thoroughly the façade unleashes a beast rather than hides it.