Friday, September 1, 2023

Suspiria / **** (1977)

The first thing to assault us is the music. A haunting, odd melodic blend of low menacing synths underneath joyful chimes harkens the memory to the days of sinister fairy tales, when beautiful maidens wandered aimlessly through a world quietly plotting to end them. Almost on cue, the chime is followed by the arrival of attractive Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who wanders an airport terminal after a long flight overseas brings her to Italy. Notice the space between her and the glass doors of the exit briefly seems exaggerated, as if they are moving away with each step. When the doors close, the musical chords drop to total silence. She moves in, now faster and with more determination, until they open, allowing the chime to begin again as she finally crosses the threshold into the stormy night. The music overwhelms her, as if it were not music at all, but a sonic enchantment transporting her out of the safety of one world for the uncertainty of the next. For Dario Argento, the enamored filmmaker, this is merely an overture in a decadent urban retelling of Snow White. But for the many admirers (and curious onlookers) of the great “Suspiria,” it is the first of many important moments in the most visually striking horror film they may ever see.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

An American Werewolf in London / ***1/2 (1981)

Werewolves were hardly a fresh idea when John Landis helmed his mega-influential “An American Werewolf in London,” but it was one of the only movies of the modern era to do a faithful call-back to George Waggner’s “The Wolf Man,” the first picture to ever show the carnal transformation of a man into a bloodthirsty creature. Like that famed identity from the 30s, the villain in Landis’ outing is not an unknown source: it is the cursed alter ego of the protagonist, who undergoes the painful transformation as a result of a near-fatal encounter in the early scenes. “Beware the moon, lads,” a bar patron at a local pub ominously warns two Americans as they prepare to continue their hike through the Yorkshire countryside. Walking silently among rural shadows, a howl in the distance begins to sound. It moves in – closer and closer, until a violent attack ensues and one of them is killed. Gunshots ring out just as the second is mauled, but he survives. And so begins another glimpse into the world of the mythical lycanthrope, told from the rare perspective of a man who walks around knowing what he carries, but is uncertain about what it might cost him until far too late.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Lessons from Criterion:
"Night of the Living Dead" by George A. Romero

What a strange and surreal experience it can be to look upon George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in the here and now, so long after zombie culture has ingrained itself firmly in our minds and our sense of cynicism has caught up to its underlying influence. All the obligatory questions emerge before a single frame has transpired. What does a dated relic from the era of indie counter-culture have to offer us now? Aren’t we too desensitized to be shocked or dismayed? Does any of the material on screen resonate in any way, especially given how effortlessly its grim sensibilities have been upstaged by dozens of indirect remakes, sequels and modern interpretations through the years? In almost every conversation about the most prolific of horror sub-genres, the popular benchmark is usually spoken of in only passively admiring terms. Many, including self-appointed experts on the pseudo-politics of the walking dead, are inclined to dismiss it on the grounds of its amateur values, downplaying the matter for the favor of the more technically-competent – and challenging – endeavors. Perhaps they are the sorts raised in the shadow of the much more well-regarded “Dawn of the Dead,” which was the first of Romero’s zombie films to add the much-lauded sardonic cultural subtext to the ambitious flesh-ripping violence.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Talk to Me / *** (2023)

A plethora of fatal traumas attach themselves to dimwitted movie characters who dare to commune with the afterlife. Whether the opportunity comes from having paranormal ability, involving the talents of psychics or those ominous Ouija boards, the very act of drifting to the beyond and making contact with the dead has rarely proven lucrative, even for those who might do so for the means of plausible unfinished business. Yet such individuals hopelessly cling to the conceit that their experiences can be different than all which have preceded them, perhaps because the knowledge of existing ordeals and mistakes has compelled extra caution in the matter. Those are the sorts of people you rarely see in sequels to horror films – because unlike flesh-and-blood madmen who can be escaped or fought against, an evil force from the nether-world rarely gives up until they’ve claimed their target as a prize.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Halloween / ***1/2 (1978)

The key distinction between the original “Halloween” and “Psycho,” the movie it is most closely associated with, comes down to a need (or lack thereof) to understand the psychological motives of the villain. When it first caught audiences off guard in the fall of 1978, John Carpenter’s influential slasher was riding a new wave of reality-grounded horror films foreshadowed by the arrival of Norman Bates – ones that involved everyday people quietly evolving into the deviant madmen of old legends and bedtime stories. While it was always a given these individuals would become loathsome homicidal killers, now we were asking ourselves how we could not recognize the signs. Was there something in their genetic makeup that inspired the shift? A situation that destroyed their stability? Or gradual stressors no one else was seeing? Well before the era of criminal profiling made madmen of the flesh relatable, all we could do was study, ponder and then wait for the experts to assess the matter in pointed and revealing monologues. But the arrival of the Michael Meyers persona represented a startling shift away from the gray areas of movie villain psychology. When Dr. Loomis (Donald Sutherland), the man studying Meyers, is asked early on about what caused such a shy and quiet boy to murder his older sister in cold blood, his conclusion contradicts the very teachings of his profession. To him, there is nothing behind Michael’s eyes other than the dead and thoughtless conviction of a monster – a literal personification of evil, long detached from the human he once was.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

X / ***1/2 (2022)

It comes to our notice early on in Ti West’s “X” that his probable casualties are far from being conventional pop-up targets. They occupy space in the movie with a sort of cheery displacement, fully cognizant of the danger that comes with their situation without letting their behaviors be entirely dictated by it. The scene: six young Texans with a penchant for southern euphemisms gather in a van, drive out into the country and rent the spare house on the property of an elderly couple – one of whom always seems to answer the door while holding a shotgun. Their objective: to turn this rickety old acquisition into the setting of an amateur porno, populated by aspiring adult film actors who have tagged along for their own slice of fame in the new frontier of home video. The ringleader, Wayne (Martin Henderson), foresees all the obligatory elements of fortune in this undertaking, but what he and the rest of his entourage are not able to successfully predict is that they’ve wandered into yet another backwoods nightmare of violent mayhem. The surprise, this time, is that they don’t go down without at least holding their own intellectually against the morose and cynical hunters they are destined to confront.

Friday, August 4, 2023

THE TALKATIVE KID, THE THOUGHTFUL ADULT – 25 Years as an Online Film Writer

25 years ago today, a young inexperienced journalist with a passion for gabbing about film took to the Internet on a journey to add his voice to the growing throng of web-based personalities, and yet another new amateur movie blogger was born. Eventually branding himself a “Cinemaphile” – that is, someone who prefers the experience of watching films in theaters instead of at home – he became tirelessly motivated by the panache of more experienced critics while he was formulating his own distinct voice, one that sought to add a little flair and wit to the mix while mirroring the values of an eccentric juvenile. Sometimes that aroused anger in readers, other times surprise and dismay. But it was all part of being in a fun and exciting new frontier, back when cyberspace was mostly in the grasp of computer nerds and the clap-backs came from genuine, hardcore film buffs. They didn’t just argue or dismiss a review, either. Some of them added enlightening contexts that were previously lacking, or at least had the patience to educate their target instead of just cutting him or her down to size. Those exchanges reflected the unspoken importance of criticism in a time when the validity of it was coming into doubt, just as the online world was allowing an entire generation of spectators to plug in and add their voice to a crowd of millions.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

When a Stranger Calls / *** (1979)

“When a Stranger Calls” endures primarily for two sequences that bookend a fairly routine middle act. The first, in which a young high school babysitter (Carol Kane) is left alone in a neighbor’s house while a menacing voice hurls ominous warnings over a phone (“I want to feel your blood on me”), is the total summation of a director evoking all the qualities of a thrilling short subject, while the latter manages to play into the same tension as her long ordeal – and the trajectory of the villain – come full circle. But compelled by the success of “Halloween” and the urgings of studio heads who wanted their own slice of the new bloody pie that was teenage slashers, Fred Walton’s material became a full-length feature marred by conflicting values: meandering pacing, unconvincing heroes, implausible setups and a plethora of fairly uninteresting extra characters randomly stuffed in an underwritten screenplay. Yet to watch the film in its entirety is to find an intriguing case study in the differing values of the long and short forms of this medium. Was Walton just too exhausted by wallop of the first and last sequences to really commit himself to something great for a full-length endeavor? The movie is hardly worthless or even insulting – there are, in fact, some passable stuff among all the middle muck – but so brilliant are the opening and closing passages that they deserved more than just an average link in the chain.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Death Proof / *** (2007)

“There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel.”

There’s little more that can be said of the Tarantino method that hasn’t already been analyzed by countless critics and film historians, but if one were to attempt and condense all his sensibilities into a single opus, “Death Proof” contains just about every trait worth mentioning. Made on a whim along with Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror” as part of their 2007 Grindhouse throwback, the movie is a shameless clash of underground 1970s sensibilities, married by a plot that plays like a spaghetti western and dialogue that has all the sophisticated awareness of blaxploitation. Sometimes, particularly in the slower moments, we sense a twinkle of glee emulating from the material, as if its director has found content that exists just for his sake as opposed to one that he must mold and refine. If the likes of “Kill Bill” or “Django Unchained” are imprinted with his signature, his lone horror film is more like an old tattoo: as much a part of him as he is a part of the culture of underground B-movie shlock that first gave him his creative wings so long ago.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Outwaters / * (2022)

Somewhere in the vacant expanse that is the Mojave desert, four friends with unfledged verbal skills will partake in a sad, confusing ambush in the dark that culminates with lots of screaming and blood splatters, all to be barely spied by a camera lens that is always shooting at unflattering angles while a small flashlight ray attempts to zero in on thoroughly uninteresting findings. That is the central engine behind “The Outwaters,” yet another found footage yarn that comes to us with an even loftier promise: all that is about to happen will defy the very basic notions of this subgenre’s primary formula. Defy it does, but to what end? To confuse and sadden the audience? To get them thinking beyond ordinary horror movie trappings? I would have only welcomed that change. Alas, director Robbie Banfitch, obviously new to the fold of this form of storytelling, finds nothing in the dark other than our collective anger at having been left adrift in a confusing and listless story that ends with few certainties and even fewer solutions. There is nothing to think about on screen, no image to anchor curiosity or theme to create a sense of investment. All that might have been eased by the existence of characters who knew how to discuss their plight, but the movie only gives us simpletons who don’t seem to remember basic emotional cues, much less create a running dialogue about what may be lurking in the shadows of the desert.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Into the Storm / ** (2014)

Movies like “Into the Storm” are an endurance test – not merely for the attention span of the audience, but for the patience of minds like mine that are exhausted by repeated visits to the tired and storm-battered corners of middle America. They seem to be manufactured rather than made, assembled out of parts of any number of pictures that highlight the framework, then spliced together by hands that have been convinced they can still pass as solid entertainment in a culture that has ready access to their older (and often better) predecessors. Only occasionally will they be dressed up in the skin of something novel, although there always remains the question of purpose: if the source was good enough to redo in the first place, what are the odds of doing it better a second time? For a good way through this latest excursion in volatile tornado alley, I was at least cautious in my disdain: perhaps under new direction, through the “found footage” camera lens that is a go-to for just about all things, something more interesting could be done with the concept of ambitious disaster pictures. But fate, alas, is not on anyone’s side here – least of all those watching it all happen. When a character holding a camera up to his face announces “this is the biggest tornado I’ve ever seen” while foolishly standing just a few yards from its swirling vortex, I had not fear or concern for him: only the hope that he would get sucked up and the movie would be over.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Mandy / * (2018)

In theory, a movie like “Mandy” would be right up the same alley of brazen gorefests that have been known to captivate my morbid sense of voyeurism. Ripped from the familiar cloth as any number of audacious horror stories set in the lurid world of pulp fiction, the picture makes a bold promise from its very first frame: all that is about to happen will be unlike anything we have witnessed on screen – or, at the bare minimum, fresh enough to draw comparisons to Dario Argento and Mario Bava, the architects of the decadent excess we associate with Giallo. Indeed, countless critics and colleagues have hailed the picture as a triumph of its medium, a surrealistic experience where the framework of the familiar revenge formula is twisted into a fever dream of contemplative symbolism and thematic excess. And who wouldn’t want that, especially nowadays as the genre appears caught somewhere between the extremes of vague nuance and gratuitous overkill?

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Terrifier / * (2017)

Marginal movie villains are in copious supply in the films of today, but plausible, convincing ones have become an increasingly rare breed: they now seem to persist more in theory than in practice, where they can be liberated from old formulas and allowed to wreak their sense of chaos in the untamed wilds of a perverse imagination. Once in a great while, one will even find its way in front of a film camera that earns the right to manifest them; if a skilled director or writer has the capacity to evolve their sense of animosity beyond the shackles of the ordinary narrative, we get captivating antagonists like Pennywise, Anton Chigurh and Agent Smith at the center of the chaos. For a brief time during the early minutes of “Terrifier,” we can sense the spark of the latter. Imagine the scene: a mute clown in white and black makeup with bleeding gums and inhuman teeth appears out of the shadows of Halloween night, follows two 20-something women into a late-night pizza parlor and ominously taunts them. Not a word or sound escapes his mouth, although his mannerisms reflect an unhinged insanity brewing beneath the exterior. Later, long after the clown has been tossed out of the establishment for vandalizing the restroom, the girls return to their car and discover their tire has been slashed, setting a chain reaction of events into motion that will end with immeasurable death and blood splattered all over the pavement of a run-down warehouse in the city.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Jurassic World: Dominion / ** (2022)

In many ways, you have to grin gleefully at the great audacity of Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World: Dominion,” a movie that feels less like a fatalist dinosaur picture and more akin to chase capers like James Bond or Indiana Jones. Not content to center the action on any sort of enclosed setting, his premise sets us up for all the big obligatory tropes of modern blockbusters: lots of locales, intersecting casts, intrigue, big secrets beneath all the hurried dialogue, tugs of old nostalgia, uncertain villains, climactic twists overloaded on coincidence, seemingly unrelated narrative angles that can be shoe-horned into the broader arc, and wide-scale action sequences that bookend every detail. Oh, and then there’s the dinosaurs. Some are old, others – many others – are new. You almost expect that of a series that has become saturated in wall-to-wall ambushes with the prehistoric monsters, but rarely have they been so numerous, or indeed so accessible. Yet our eyes can barely keep them straight as their prospective prey shuffle between locations ranging from Malta, the Heartland of the Americas and even to the snowy peaks of a forest reserve in northern Italy. That might have been forgivable in a story more focused on a single purpose. Such a story was probably lost in very early drafts of this convoluted screenplay.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Taxi Driver / **** (1976)

Like the most notable of cynical movie narrators, Travis Bickle arrives in “Taxi Driver” less an observer and more a force of nature nearing the breaking point of his stability. What separates him from a breed of other loners eager to critique the system is how far he is willing to go in dismantling it. This is not a man who gazes directly at the cultural construct of 1970s New York with pragmatism, and when he becomes driven to shake up its foundation, each choice plays like a step further away from a tangible moral center. In many instances that can be amusing to watch, at least when the results are uncomfortable rather than dangerous. Consider his interaction with women: early on he attempts to earn the interest of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a political volunteer for an aspiring presidential candidate. At first she is just as amused by his blunt worldview as we are, until their first date ends up in a seedy theater showing porno. Now contrast that to how he approaches Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute whose eyes seem to plead for him to save her – admirable, perhaps, if you were to just passively observe the behavior. But while his is a pattern that is the staple of many movie characters whose madness walks in the guise of noble intentions, rarely are they this frontal, or so pointed in arriving at the core of the crumbling psyche.