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April 17, 2014

FMWL Indie Spotlight - The Lashman

(2014, Dir. by Cameron McCasland.)

Review by The Mike.

One of my most common complaints with "retro" genre films - films like Grindhouse and Machete and dozens of low budget imitators - is that the pace is updated for modern audiences. Of course, there's an audience for fast-paced splatterfests out there, but I'm always appreciative of the filmmakers who pay homage to the past without forgetting that most genre films from the '70s and '80s didn't move at breakneck speeds.

One example of this is The Lashman, Cameron McCasland's debut slasher throwback in which some friends head off for a weekend at a cabin only to find that the angry spirit of a lash-wielding fella from the 1800s is at work in the woods. It's a simple kind of horror film - five friends, no civilization, a deadly legend come to life - but it's also an authentic reminder of the things we love about this kind of film.

(Now that I think about it, should I be dropping the s and just calling this a "lasher film"? I do love being accurate, and it would probably be a great poster quote if I said it's "The first great Lasher film!", but that's just too confusing for me. Excuse me if I continue to say "slasher" despite the film's lashing nature.)

The first thing you'll notice about McCasland's film is probably that it looks like something you'd find on a VHS tape in the 1980s. For the most part, the clothes, cars and settings look like something out of Just Before Dawn or The Burning. The film's sound design is also intentionally low-tech, and younger viewers might not understand that this is how some movies used to sound when they were made on the cheap. It's obviously a zero budget film, but the attention to detail in making the film feel dated is one of the things that made me interested in The Lashman from the opening scenes.

The characters are not original for a slasher movie - sensitive guy (David Vaughn), nice girl (Stacey Dixon), lustful couple who make immoral decisions (Jeremy Jones & Kaylee Williams), nice girl's brother who doesn't fit in (Shawn C. Phillips)- but the actors all seem to know what their place is in the script and fit it well. Jones is especially effective as the aggressive member of the group who drinks too much and thinks with the wrong head, while Vaughn, Phillips, and Dixon have no problems fitting into the film. Williams' character is probably the most interesting of the bunch because she's written as something of a wild-card who brings sexual tension to the group. The character is a nice addition to the otherwise paint-by-numbers set up, but none of the actors or characters is bound to be the most memorable thing about the film.

I worry that many people may find The Lashman's pace to be concerning - after the opening sequence establishes the villain it's a long stretch of time before blood flies again - but the slow build to madness is what won me over about this film. Patience pays off for McCasland, because the focus on these characters, the story of the Lashman, and the building tension in both their relationships and the setting is what makes The Lashman feel more like those early '80s slasher films that many of us love despite their flaws. Have you seen these tricks before? Probably. Do they still make for a great party horror flick? Absolutely.

Some of the film's charm is lost in the final act, as the showdown between the killer and his victims is brief and builds to an abrupt finale. There might have been some benefit to spreading out the kills a little more in the short film - which runs only 81 minutes with end credits - but the action is still entertaining and the film ends at a natural stopping point - which, of course, leaves the possibility of a sequel.

The Lashman probably isn't for everyone, but horror lovers who remember the VHS era fondly will surely admire it for what it is. Sure, none of the actors are going to win major awards and the script is simple and it's not the bloodiest thing you'll find and it's just simply not perfect. But I haven't seen a tribute to slasher cinema that feels as genuine as The Lashman does, and that alone should make it worth a viewing.

The Lashman will premiere this Saturday night at 7:00 pm at the Full Moon Horror Film Festival in Nashville, and if you're interested in keeping up with it you can check out the film's Facebook and Twitter pages to see when it'll be playing in your neck of the woods. Until then, enjoy the trailer below.

April 2, 2014

An Open Letter to Elijah Wood, Franck Khalfoun, and Alexandre Aja Regarding Totally Blowing It with Maniac

Mssrs. Wood, Khalfoun, and Aja,

So as not to get off on the wrong foot, let me first clarify that the “Totally Blowing It” portion of the title refers not to the quality of the film in question, but the staggering size of the missed opportunity it represents. Make no mistake, I loved the film. In fact, I liked it so much that I bestowed upon it a coveted MMM Best Picture nomination. But, regardless of the fact that your team made the most brutal, disturbing horror film of the year, I can’t help but feel cheated.

Please tell me that's orc's blood Mr. Frodo.

Maniac should have been not one, but two films, the second of which would have been Maniac, exactly as it is. The first film, however, would have been a romantic comedy, shot simultaneously with Maniac, using the same characters, locations, and cast. Imagine the devastation to the unsuspecting audiences who would have been charmed by the wonderful, quirky characters and the romantic ups and downs of their relationships, when they discover it was all just Frank’s fantasy world version of a reality in which he murders and scalps pretty much every woman he speaks to.

They're just so freakin' cute together.

The reason this would work is that Maniac is structured exactly like a romantic comedy. The lonely lead character goes on a series of disasterous “dates” before meeting his dream girl, but it gets complicated because she has a boyfriend. Due to a very specific and relatively rare mutual interest, the two have plentiful reasons to continue seeing each other, and they quickly grow close. The girl breaks up with her boyfriend, leaving an opening for the leading man to sweep her off her feet. But just as it seems he’s about to get the girl, she discovers something he’s done, an act of dishonesty or betrayal, that makes her reject him, despite his pleas that he did it for her and she’d see that if only she’d listen to him. The leading man then “chases” her in an attempt to get her back. Where the structure diverges is the ending,, which in the rom-com pretty much has to end with them reconciling and getting together. The horror version, of course, must end with blood, blood, blood. In a good rom-com, you’re invested in the characters, so you worry that the lead will end up with the wrong person and miss their shot at true love. In a good horror film, you worry that the character’s intestines will be strung up on the wrong person’s curtain rods.


Envision this:
In June 2013, a film entitled “Mannequin Man,” opens. It stars the boyishly good-looking Elijah Wood in his first film as the romantic lead. Playing on the quiet charm he exhibited as Frodo, the film follows the love life of lonely introvert and passionate mannequin-restorer Frank Zito. The movie opens with Frank witnessing an attractive young woman being harassed on a street corner. He shows his nice-guy demeanor by following the woman, just to make certain she gets home safely. He’s pretty much hopeless with the ladies, so he doesn’t realize how creepy it is when he approaches the woman at her front door. She freaks out and makes an embarassing scene, and Frank slinks off knowing he's blown it and she thinks he's a perv.



In the next scene, Frank is in the backroom at his store, interacting with his mannequins as if they’re alive. It’s kind of weird and slightly pathetic, but he’s pretty funny and charismatic, so we write it off as him just being a shy and lonely guy.

Unable to introduce himself to women in person, Frank turns to online dating. His handle is I M Timid, which doesn’t attract too many women, but eventually a pretty girl called RedLucie86 shows some interest. They agreed to meet for drinks and things don’t go as planned.

I'm sooooo in love with this woman.

A huge part of what makes Maniac work is the rom-com’s stock-in-trade: it makes it audience fall in love with the characters. When the audience meets RedLucie86, they will either be put off or attracted by her tattoos and piercings (put me strongly on the attracted side of the divide), but as we get to know her, we see she is a kind, fun person, more than willing to give a shy dude a chance. When we get to her apartment, we spy three keyboards in the corner, indicating that she’s a pretty serious musician and not merely a vacuous bar girl. Then she puts on a record, revealing herself as a vinyl enthusiast and winning me completely over (okay, I was probably in love the first moment I saw her gorgeous curls, but this cemented it). That’s when the seduction begins. RedLucie playfully flirts with Frank, but he’s clearly not comfortable with it, so she becomes more aggressive. She’s not so aggressive as to make the viewer think she’s a psycho, but aggressive enough that we clearly see that she’s not Frank’s Ms. Right. In the rom-com version, this would be the point at which Frank would freak out and embarrass himself before quickly making for the door.


Now imagine knowing only the quirky, cute version of the scene and then being subjected to RedLucie’s graphic strangulation and scalping.

Just when we think Frank's love life is doomed, an unlikely twist of fate brings along a beautiful, intelligent artistic young woman who just so happens to have a passion for photographing mannequins. Her name is Anna, and clearly, she is Frank's perfect match. He sees her photographing his display windows and invites her in to look around. They hit it off right away, and even discuss a possible artistic collaboration. But then, on her way out, she points out that Frank has lipstick on his face. Awkward! Wait, you say, that's exactly what happened in the horror version. And you're right. In fact, it was this scene that gave me the idea for the Maniac rom-com.



So the lipstick is the first bump in the road for their relationship, the second is that she has a boyfriend, so they've got to keep things strictly professional. He makes her some faceless mannequins for her gallery show, and they go out to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as friends of course. As she works on her show, Frank backs off a little, not wanting to come on too strong, he even attempts to get a date with a lovely aerial silk performer, but inadvertently finds himself stuck in the closet of her dressing room after the show. This sequence is a classic comedy of errors. Frank has the best of intentions, but every bumbling attempt to connect with the girl makes him look like a weirdo stalker. Frank barely manages to escape detection, and the girl leaves in a hurry, forgetting her purse. Ever the gentleman, Frank attempts to return it to her, following her all the way to the subway. When he finally gets close enough to speak to her and tries to return the purse, she bolts. Not realizing why exactly she's creeped out (maybe something to do with the purse being left in the dressing room rather than somewhere public where a passerby could find it), he chases after her, trying desperately to do the right thing. In a parking lot, she falls and twists her ankle. Frank catches up, but she's screaming so loudly that he just leaves the purse on the ground next to her and flees the scene.




On the night of Anna's big gallery opening, Frank must overcome his social awkwardness and make an appearance. He's doing very well until a series of encounters with Anna's rude art-world friends puts him on edge. Anna's drunken agent insults Frank's life's work to his face. He stews about it for awhile, but then can't take it anymore. When the agent leaves, he follows so he can give her a piece of his mind without making a scene at the opening. She manages to stay well ahead of him, so Frank ends up following her all the way back to her apartment. When she sees him at her door, she doesn't give him the chance to speak, but immediately freaks out and starts throwing shit at him and screaming. In her frenzy, she too falls and hits her head on a countertop. Frank rushes to help her and ends up calling an ambulance. When the police arrive, they take him in for questioning, but eventually let him go.



The next day, he visits Anna, who is upset both because she has broken up with her boyfriend, and because of the news that her agent was attacked in her apartment and had to have stitches. Frank, of course, doesn't know how to own up to his role in the accident, so he plays dumb. Then, in the middle of the visit, Anna gets a call from her agent, who tells her it was Frank who "attacked" her. Anna gets pissed and kicks Frank out of her apartment. The rest of the film is basically Frank following Anna, who has decided she's getting back together with her jerk ex-boyfriend. A series of near-slapstick mishaps keeps Frank from catching up too quickly, but when she finally notices she's being followed, she hastily accepts a ride from a stranger. Urging him to step on it, they get in a collision.



When Anna awakes in the hospital. There's a huge bouquet from Frank, and not so much as a card from Mr. Wrong.  There's also a video apology from Frank, who explains his intentions and wins her over. The film ends with Anna showing up at his shop and a big, sloppy make-out session.

Alternately, instead of going with the whole agent fiasco (which might set too dark a tone for the film), Anna could walk in on Frank while he's having a weird dance party with his mannequins in the back room. Of course this might crank up the pervy knob just a bit too high.

The movie comes out with decent numbers and mixed, but mostly positive reviews. It is a fun trifle of a movie quickly forgotten by most. Forgotten, that is, until August 2013, when Maniac premieres. While Mannequin Man wasn't a huge hit, Maniac causes the internet to explode with alternating praise and outrage, so much so that theaters are forced to reopen Mannequin Man to accomodate those who missed it the first time around. Horror nerds, of course, would have already picked up on the fact that Mannequin Man's hero was named after Joe Spinell's 1980 character, and their minds would have been half blown seeing all the parallels between Mannequin Man and William Lustig's Maniac. But when the secret remake is dropped on them, their heads simultaneously explode, eliminating the entire audience for Maniac. The film goes down in history as being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of horror fans worldwide. It is banned in 75 countries and becomes the most illegally downloaded film of all time.



And that, dear sirs, is why I consider Maniac both a great horror film, and a failure of epic proportions.

Sincerely,
Marvin the Macabre

March 25, 2014

Book Review - Joyland

Review by The Mike.

I hope that someday, when I get old, I'll be able to look back at my life with the wisdom shown by a Stephen King narrator. King has often been able to tell a story from the viewpoint of a grown man looking back on his tumultuous youth - for us movie fans the easy example is when Richard Dreyfus told the story of Stand By Me, though my favorite might be the lead character from his more recent tale Riding the Bullet - and he does it again in Joyland, a 2013 novel that offers just enough of the supernatural and the homicidal to suck a horror fan like me into this fantastic coming-of-age story.

At the center of the book, telling his tale from an older and wiser future, is a man named Devin Jones who went by Dev or Jonesy when he was a 21 year old amusement park employee in the summer of 1973. Jonesy, as I'd like to call him, is an altruistic English student, a virgin who spends his summer pining for the girl he lost while listening to The Doors and reading The Lord of the Rings when he's not working, and someone who just seems to bring out the best in the people around him. Maybe that's because he's the one telling us the story - our narrator does point out that everyone makes their past sound a little more exciting than it really was - but when we like the guy so much we're willing to go along with their version of events.

Jonesy's dramatic tale features plenty of interesting characters - carnies and college kids and a librarian and a sick kid and more - and all of them seem to orbit around his place of employment, the fictional North Carolina amusement park which shares its name with the novel. Joyland isn't a big deal of a place and Jonesy never paints the most glamorous picture of it, but he and King certainly paint it as an environment that would inspire someone to mutter that the place "has character."  King is more than willing to pull back some curtains in the entertainment business, providing Jonesy and his co-workers with their own lingo that he dubs "the Talk,"  but most of the seedy prejudices you might have about carnival workers are absent from this book. King doesn't want us to think of Joyland as a bad place, despite some of the terrible things he creates there.

Those who know Stephen King's work (at this point in his career, is there anyone who doesn't?) might be surprised at how much of the book (which runs a meager 280ish pages in total) is about the carnival life and our lead's self-discovery during his time away from school. King does everything in his power to make Jonesy seem like a good kid - thanks to his narration from thirty years later things like suicidal tendencies and masturbation are brushed off as dumb kid stuff - but it never seems too forced. It's essential to Joyland that the reader truly likes Jonesy, and after finishing the book I don't see how anyone couldn't. He's a sweet character who is slightly one note, but he's never too simple or cliche.

This is a Stephen King book, and you're right to expect something sinister, but it's one of his most restrained supernatural tales. There are hints that some characters possess what his other books might call "a shine" and there's a ghost and there's talk about a few brutal (but not so brutal that you wouldn't see them on a prime time network drama) murders inside the story. Joyland left me wanting a little more in these areas - there are lots of explanations of experiences had by others but not enough direct reader-meets-evil moments to keep a more cynical horror fan's attention - but it's also a bit poetic how King manages to tell a story of a killing and a haunting without losing the book's more life-affirming message.

Joyland worked for me because it's written like so many other great King stories of redemption and growth and hope - themes that often get forgotten when people want to talk about Pennywise the Clown or Randall Flagg or Jack Torrance and his axe - and because it manages to keep a positive twist on death and the macabre. The book is full of death and sadness, but its structure - especially all the asides from the older Jonesy that key us in to some twists down the road - provides plenty of levity that keeps us from sinking too far into the darker details of the story. It feels like this was all so simple to King - this is one the slightest books I've ever read from him - but I couldn't help being impressed when I realized how invested I was in this character and the events that made his time at Joyland so unforgettable. Joyland isn't an epic of terror like some of his more renowned classics, but it's a reminder that the author can still grab our focus and hold it for as long as he likes.

March 10, 2014

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

(1965,  Directed by Freddie Francis.)

Review by Ben Thompson.

You horror aficionados will already be aware of Amicus Productions, the friendly arch-nemesis of the spectacular Hammer Films, so I won't need to spend too much time talking about the minds behind the self-proclaimed "studio that dripped blood". Set up by two American producers and starting out making popcorn musicals for teenagers, Amicus quickly transformed into a moderately successful contender for Hammer's horror crown (likely forged from blood, bone and the screams of the damned). To stand out from the crowd, they opted for making gimmicky horrors like the spectacularly 70's The Beast Must Die and anthology horror films, the most famous being Tales From the Crypt. Although Tales has become Amicus' legacy, their first bash at the genre, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, is also probably one of their best; helped likely in no small part by the formidable directing power of Freddie Francis. And that, folks, is the most roundabout way of introducing a film review you'll ever see that doesn't involve a brief history of the Napoleonic War.

Dr. Terror and his fabulously glued-on eyebrows.
The overarching narrative that the portmanteau of stories revolves around involves a group of men sharing a carriage on a train. One of the men is Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), who claims to be able to predict the future of each of the other five with his pack of tarot cards. The concept is simple, immediately familiar and performed with plenty of atmosphere without feeling too much like cheese. It's good to be reminded that anthology movies were once much simpler than modern iterations of the genre, which often shoot themselves in the foot with poorly realised plots for the connecting story; yes, I'm looking at you V/H/S. When you do an anthology movie, you want the canvas on which you paint your pictures to be as flat and plain as possible in order for your work to shine. Wow, that was an awful analogy.

At last a film that illustrates the dangers of open windows
and garden trellises.
To give V/H/S credit where its due, we don't go to see these movies for the two minutes between each scary story in the same way that no-one goes to a restaurant for the uncomfortable chat between courses or commits murder just for the chance to dig a grave (tip: use that last one as a conversation starter over dinner). The bite-size tales of horror are what we're here for and, although each is looking less than spotless with age, Dr. Terror delivers a delectable array of chilling stories for our enjoyment. There's an art critic (Christopher Lee) hunted down by the severed hand of an artist he slated in the press, an architect (Neil McCallum) drawn into the claws of an ancient werewolf, an evil house-swallowing vine, a doctor (a very young and fluffy looking Donald Sutherland) who suspects his wife might be a vampire and lastly a musician whose greed gets him mixed up in a voodoo curse. I think that's about all of our major horror food groups accounted for there, save for a haunted house.

Much inconsiderate racial stereotyping. Oh, those were the days...
Each story is kept to a comfortable length with none of them outstaying their welcome (although the killer vine sequence seemed to be cut a little short, particularly with it having such an interesting concept) making for a snappy pace that keeps each story fresh while leaving you wanting just a little more. As is customary with the traditional horror story, each one is set up much the same: a basic horror premise is introduced and the strong, white male attempts to thwart/outsmart said evil (this is the 60's we're talking about here, thinly veiled sexism and racial prejudice abound) but a shocking twist at the very end sends that nice chill up your spine that can only come from a good scary story. Even if some of the tales feel a little bland compared to our modern refined palates, you'll be guaranteed to enjoy at least one of them, such is their variety.

Christopher Lee over-acting like a boss.
This is generally a very solid film, both in regards to the horror and the oft difficult to master pacing of the anthology style. Any niggles usually come from, as I've already mentioned, the film's own age, either through shabby effects or now-tired genre tropes; something we can't really knock it too hard for. And aside from a few moments of truly glorious hammy acting (Christopher Lee is a particular delight) there's not a part of the movie that I didn't find just plain fun to watch. Actually, hamminess included. This is an enjoyable, atmospheric movie that knows how to tell a good story and tell it well. If you've yet to see any of Amicus' work, this is as good a place as any to start. But beware, some stories don't always turn out like you might expect...

Just a little side-note. My other blog has moved house to a new address, check it out some time. It's really good, I swear.

February 21, 2014

The Seasoning House - Review


Now and again I come across a movie that is so unpleasant, so disturbing and unsettling that there’s no way I can actually “like” the film in the traditional sense. I can appreciate its power and rawness, but watching it is a strictly one-time endurance test. I was pretty sure The Seasoning House would be one of those movies, and for the first half, it was.

The Seasoning House tells the story of a deaf and mute girl, probably in her mid-to-late teens, whose town is raided by the military (set in the Balkans, though everyone speaks English), whose neighbors are slaughtered in the street, and whose mother is killed in front of her. She is kidnapped along with five other girls and taken to a brothel to service the soldiers. Except she doesn’t end up like the others, chained to a bed and pumped full of dope to make them docile for their rapists. She has a large birthmark on her face, which the owner of the house uses as an excuse to keep her for himself. She can’t tell him her name, so he names her Angel, and her job is to service only him, and to prepare the girls for customers. While horrible, the job is easy at first because she can’t hear the girls pleading for help. She avoids looking at their faces and instead focuses on finding a vein to inject with heroin. Eventually she does have to look at their faces, as she crudely applies make-up to their eyelids and lips. Then she empties their piss buckets and moves on the the next girl. While the work is a soul-eroding business, she numbs herself and gets through it for her own survival. Until she comes across a girl who knows sign language...

The violence is graphic, the special effects top-notch, and the acting very believable. It all adds up to an extremely hard to watch and sobering experience as your mind tries to fathom that this kind of thing is happening right now, all over the world. I read the other day that there are more slaves in the world right now than there were at the height of the American slave trade. That to me is more disturbing than any number of school shootings and even genocides that make huge headlines. It is that reality behind the story that gives The Seasoning House its initial power. It is a nightmare scenario, but a living, waking nightmare that thousands of people are being subjected to daily. And it’s merciless. The girls aren’t taken care of. They’re fed and sponged off, their wounds are treated when the soldiers beat them bloody, but they’re never getting away. They will simply be used until they die. The Seasoning House captures that reality, shows it to you in graphic detail, and then somehow becomes simultaneously less and more disturbing.

SPOILERS FOLLOW:

Angel becomes friends with the signing girl, sneaking into her room through the ventilation and sharing her stash of chocolate. But she also bears witness when the girl is raped so violently that it breaks her pelvis. While the girl is still healing from her injury, a group of soldiers comes to the house which just so happens to be the group that raided her neighborhood. The hugest, scariest-looking Serb to ever live then gets his turn with Angel’s friend, and he also beats her brutally, choking her while he goes at her. Meanwhile, Angel is in the vent, watching. It is clear he is going to kill her, so Angel sneaks out of the vent and stabs him with a stashed kitchen knife. The murder is long and bloody, but emotionally satisfying for the viewer, who want nothing more than to see these men pay for their crimes. And then the movie gives you exactly what you want, or thought you wanted. The film then becomes a cat and mouse game with Angel sneaking through the walls and crawlspaces while 5 heavily armed military men give chase. It’s not like she becomes a total badass though; she fumbles her way through the escape relying on luck at least as much as cunning.

When I say the second half of the movie is both less and more disturbing than the first half, I mean that by morphing into a more conventional thriller, the film becomes a less excruciating experience for the audience, but more troubling in terms of its ultimate goal. Technically, this half of the film is very well-executed. It’s scary, tense, and exciting. The events of the escape twist and turn at a breakneck pace, and in the end, she gets revenge on her captors. All is well, right?

Except that suddenly The Seasoning House becomes an entertainment. It’s giving the audience what it wants, but when you get it, you find it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. By falling back on the conventional horror/thriller techniques, it somehow cheapens everything that came before. At this point, the violence becomes almost pornographic in its detail. Heads are bashed in, one character is repeatedly shot in the face, all while the camera unflinchingly rolls. And the gore effects are brilliant, by the way. The director, Paul Hyett, has an impressive pedigree in make-up and special effects, and it shows. But I get the feeling that as a first-time director, he got a little too caught up in making awesome special effects and lost sight of the impact of a well-timed cut-away.
Cat

Mouse

The final insult of the film is the now-obligatory fake happy ending where the protagonist seems to have escaped danger, but the film clues the audience in to a detail showing that they are, indeed, doomed. It’s a well-worn cliche, and to see it tacked on to the end of a film that began with such originality is tantamount to the director breaking into your bedroom, sitting on your sleeping head, and farting directly into your ear. Okay, I’m bad with similes.

In the end, it feels like all the misery and soul-crushing horror of the first half was played merely for shock value, making the film less a social statement on the horrors of human trafficking and more of a pure exploitation film. And it feels very, very disrespectful of the real life victims.

I realize I probably sound pretty hypocritical, or at least inconsistent. After all, basically all the movies I enjoy exploit human misery for entertainment value. That’s what horror is (that’s not all it is, but it’s one aspect). But everyone has their boundaries, and this movie definitely crosses mine. If nothing else, The Seasoning House is a missed opportunity to create a powerful, meaningful film about a timely, important subject. And it all got thrown away for a crowd-pleasing ending.

January 14, 2014

Filth

(2013 Director: Jon S. Baird)

It's often all too easy to get yourself into a bit of a movie rut, particularly with the ever-fickle horror genre where trends reign supreme. You end up stuck watching the same films that bear slightly different titles but all feature creepy kids, shaky cameras and terrible CGI. It gets tiring, and the only way out is to happen across a little gem that shakes you out of the slump and reminds you what real horror looks like. Otherwise you'll be destined to stumble along until the trickle of films you were clinging to finally fades away like a child's footprints in the snow. Then you freeze to death. If only there was a film I could parallel that analogy to...
Obligatory semi-nudity; always a must-have.
My discovery of the year appeared in the most unlikely of places: an afternoon showing of Jon S. Baird's controversial adaptation of Irvine Welsh's (the author of Trainspotting, the film that made Danny Boyle famous) vile tale of moral and physical corruption, Filth, in a little independent cinema next to my flat in Dundee. Although billed as a comedy crime-drama the film regularly takes a plunge into horror's pool, and with spectacular results.
To give a brief outline of the plot (which is a little dense for a curt 90 minute run-time), James McAvoy plays Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, a crooked copper who sees the possibility of promotion and, by extension, a chance to rekindle his rather unorthodox relationship with his wife when he's assigned to the case of a murdered Japanese student. Alongside the main plot, Robertson also partakes in a series of increasingly cruel "games" with his work colleagues in order to gain the upper hand over them for the upcoming promotion and everything is sewed together nicely by plenty of drug use and a series of increasingly sporadic and nightmarish hallucinations.

Look at him, he's such a cheeky wee scamp.
The first half of the film is hilarious; vile and uncomfortable, but hilarious. If you're not well versed in the Scottish dialect it might be a wise move to get the subtitles on to help you penetrate the wall of profanity and slang that makes up the commendably slick, cynical script; poking fun at everything from police corruption (obviously), tourism and our home country of Scotland to prostitution, bigotry and secret societies. James McAvoy's sharp-witted, sick sleazeball of assonance (which rightfully won him the Best Actor British Independent Film Award) acts as an anchor on which the rest of the superb cast (of which there are particularly memorable performances by Eddie Marsan and Jim Broadbent) float and are inevitably dragged down with him into a sordid pit of sex, drugs and...what's the word? Dirt? Muck?
Lesson number one, kids: don't have a bad trip.

This is where we come in, horror fans, because as Bruce's world spirals out of control into a drug-fuelled hallucinogenic mess, shit starts to get real. Or, as the case may be here, unreal. Unbridled, visceral surrealism is almost exclusively the domain of horror films (look at Hellraiser, The Beyond and Eraserhead) thanks to over-the-top weird generally not being considered an enjoyable experience, but Filth descends very abruptly into an extremely unpleasant wreck of schizophrenic mayhem that wouldn't feel out of place next to a gentleman being given a blowjob by someone in a bear suit. Nope. Still can't think a movie with something like that in it.

Then there's the score, arranged by Clint Mansell, which melds together haunting orchestral pieces with chirpy pop music to add to the already manic atmosphere of the film, bringing to mind the same sort of terrifyingly unhinged carnage as the likes of Funny Games. The music hops up and down in time with the tone of the film, knowing exactly when it's needed and when to let the scenes speak for themselves. Which they do, very loudly and with gorgeously over the top set design, jump scares and atmospheric lighting to both enthral and disturb us, the unsuspecting audience.
A special shout-out to the atmospheric use of lighting, particularly in later
scenes when the tone turns much darker.
Everything is made all the more disturbing by how far distanced from its comedy beginnings the film takes itself; the halfway mark pulling the rug out from under your feet and replacing relatively harmless shenanigans with the all too real and brutal repercussions of one's past and present actions. The comically evil Bruce gives way to a paranoid man plagued by his own mind and all of a sudden you start to feel for the guy that you'd resigned yourself to assuming was a complete and utter tosser. McAvoy, as I can't mention enough, nails his role and successfully builds Bruce into a complex and sympathetic character who might just have a bit of good left in there somewhere, but all too late, because the slope is ever so slippery and the only way to go now is down. Filth never relents.
Not a spoiler, promise; this is in the advert too.
The second act blasts ahead with a sensory overload of cruelty, violence, and expert cinematography and editing that accumulates into some of the most difficult to watch scenes that I've seen for a long time; and it doesn't stop. To keep the experience as unsullied as possible for your viewing pleasure I won't go into details, but I walked out of the cinema drained and damaged. I needed a cup of tea and a good long lie down. Hell, I needed three months of recuperation before I could even think about reviewing this piece of absolute mental and physical destruction.

It's not scary by conventional standards, but like any good horror film it gets to you. It burrows under your skin and feeds off of you like a tapeworm. Exceptional acting, dark humour, fragmented editing and superb set design make for a gruelling cinematic experience; it's as much a feat of emotional endurance as it is a puerile satire. So if you want try something a little different to keep you up at night, give Filth a go. Same rules apply.

Filth is out on DVD in the UK on 10th February and is hopefully due for release in North America this spring.

January 9, 2014

The Mike's Top 11 Horror Films of 2013

I said it last year and I'll say it again - going to 11 never gets old.
I realize things have been a little bit slow here of late, and even the Midnight Movie of the Week is on vacation. But I'm not gonna miss my chance for a good year-end wrap up. Moreover, there have been too many horror movies I didn't have the chance to cover in 2013, so this is my way of making up time for all y'all out there who might not know how good 2013 was in the horror 'verse.

Before we get to the top eleven, some honorable mentions are in order, and some ground rules must be set. The most important of these ground rules is that not all of these films are strictly 2013 releases. Like previous years (here's 2012, here's 2011, and here's 2010), I'm considering films that a) were widely released in 2013, b) were provided to me for review in 2013, or c) were never widely released until their home video release in 2013.  So, there will be a couple of outliers but I assure you they are damn fine horror films and if you're that broken up about them being here then you're clearly being silly. OK?

Honorable Mention: 
(listed in alphabetical order)
American Mary - This might be #12 on the list, and it was a hard cut. I dig the Soska sisters' bold approach to filmmaking, and Katherine Isabelle owns the lead role. It's haunting in a gross kind of way.

Byzantium - I feel like I might be undervaluing this one, which is probably the biggest and most romantic vampire story in ages. Vampires have been a tool for lesser filmmakers of late, but Neil Jordan and company seem like they respect what they're doing here. That made the film stick with me longer than I expected.

Cockneys vs. Zombies - I feel like I've been fed up with zombies for years, but there's always a movie each year that surprises me. This year that movie was Cockneys vs. Zombies, which sounds like the worst idea but is actually a really funny and really exciting action comedy. 

The Conjuring - I don't get the love many have for this one, but I sure did have fun in the theater watching it. That counts for something.

Dark Skies - For my money, this is the most underappreaciated horror film of the year. I went to see it just because I wanted to make fun of it (and because I had to see the school counselor when I thought I saw a UFO as a kid), but it ended up keeping me entertained. Well written and intense; it feels more genuine than most jump scare horror films we've seen lately.

Frankenstein's Army - This one's here mostly because it's just so cool looking. It feels like a low budget twist on a Guillermo Del Toro film, with a nice tie in to World War II and some jolting surprises. Director Richard Raaphorst is one to watch.

Jug Face - A unique backwoods horror with excellent work from Lauren Ashley Carter in the lead. Possibly the most original horror film I saw this year, and I think it might grow on me as time goes on.

Manborg - Not sure I saw anything this year that was more ridiculously fun than this.

V/H/S 2 - A huge step up from the first film - which I liked a lot, too - and the much loved third segment in this one is probably as good as most people say it is. The whole thing still feels a little rushed to me, but I love the concept and wouldn't mind more of this series.

World War Z - It's mostly here because it was so much more exciting than I thought it would be and wasn't a total train wreck. Brad Pitt will do that for your movie.

(In the interest of full disclosure, here's a few limited release 2013 flicks I really want to see but didn't have a chance to get to before writing this. Maybe you'll see them on the 2014 list.
Berberian Sound Studio, Big Bad Wolves, Contracted, A Field in England, Haunter, Magic Magic, Only Lovers Left Alive, Resolution, We Are What We Are, Willow Creek, Witching & Bitching, WNUF Halloween Special, Would You Rather.)

Now, list time!
Number 11 - The Lords of Salem
(Directed by Rob Zombie.)

I'm surprised that I'm listing this here too. Rob Zombie has never been my favorite cup of tea, but I've always respected something about his films, even when he was ruining everything I love about the first two Halloween movies. (Oh, did I bring that up again? My bad. Still bitter.)

The Lords of Salem has a lot of the same problems Zombie's other films have - it's 100% style-over-substance, for example - but it's also the first time that his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, has been a capable actress - and she actually carries the whole darn film. There's a lot of beauty in this grimy film, and Zombie manages to create something that bizarre and memorable visually. The ending falls apart, but I still feel like the whole thing works. Well done, Mr. Zombie. You have my attention in a good way for once.

Number 10 - Grabbers
(Directed by Jon Wright.)

Lots and lots of tentacles combine with a great comedic energy in this Irish monster flick, where likeable actors and a smart script reign. Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley really work well together as the mismatched cops on the monster's trail, and the film ends up feeling like Shaun of the Dead than Tremors - two movies that any horror comedy should strive to replicate.

(By the way, this would be a heckuva double feature with Cockneys vs. Zombies, which you just read about in the Honorable Mentions section. Why do those UK folks get horror comedy so well when us Americans are making Scary Movies and A Haunted Houses? Poor America.)

Number 9 - Here Comes The Devil
(Directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano.)

A Mexican homage to films like Rosemary's Baby, Here Comes The Devil is one of the creepiest horror films I've seen in a long time. The plot balances between human and supernatural horror very well as we learn about the evil at work in this family's life, and great performances by the young co-stars only make the film that much more effective. At the center of everything is a fantastic performance by Laura Caro and one of the best reveals we've seen in a long time. This one left me thinking and feels like a script from the 1970s that's been updated perfectly to modern times.




Number 8 - John Dies At The End
(Directed by Don Coscarelli.)

It's about time that I start talking about Don Coscarelli as one of the greatest horror filmmakers, at least when it comes to being bizarre and unique. The man who created Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep did it again with the clinically insane John Dies At The End, a dimension-crossing, drug-induced fever dream with all sorts of entertaining stuff. Like meat monsters. And killer mustaches. See what I mean?

John Dies At the End (or, J-DATE, as I like to call it) doesn't work as well as Bubba Ho-Tep did in the pathos department - heck, very few horror movies are as emotionally involving as that one - but Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are perfectly adaptable to the randomness of the film as the leads. J-DATE also features top notch special effects throughout, and it's the rare film that I can truly say never suffers a dull moment.

Number 7 - Kiss of the Damned
(Directed by Xan Cassevetes.)

Style definitely won out over substance in many horror films this year, and Xan Cassavetes - the daughter of legendary director/Rosemary's Baby co-star John Casssavetes - provided one more example of that with Kiss of the Damned. This is another throwback vampire whose sexually charged roots spread into both Hammer Films' heyday and Italian vampire films of the '70s like Daughters of Darkness.

Shoddy acting aside - there's some language barrier issues at work here, even with English speaking Milo Ventamiglia - Kiss of the Damned is a captivating modern addition to the vampire subgenre, and - alongside the previously mentioned Byzantium - a nice reminder that some filmmakers are still willing to take vampires seriously when Hollywood doesn't.

Number 6 - The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh
(Directed by Rodrgio Gudino.)

This is one of the few films this year that made my skin crawl. A son inherits his late mother's home, and soon realizes the religious artifacts around the house are related to some cult stuff and suddenly everything gets creepy. It seems like a standard plot, but the approach to the film by director Rodrigo Gudino really plays up the relationship between mother and son that ended badly.

Many horror films deal with unfinished family business, but here we get terrifying work from the great Vanessa Redgrave, a whole lot of commentary on religion and Heaven and Hell, and in the end everything just feels so incredibly tense that it's impossible not to be affected by The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.

Number 5 - Maniac
(Directed by Franck Khalfoun.)

This seemed like a bad remake of a film that didn't need to be remade when it was announced, and the casting of Elijah Wood in the lead didn't inspire much confidence in this horror fan - who is now pleased to admit he was totally wrong.  Director Franck Khalfoun nails the sleazy tone of the original film and presents one of the most interesting portrayals of a mentally disturbed serial killer that I've ever seen on screen.

Khalfoun does a De Palma-esque job by keeping the camera inside the killer's eyes for much of the film, which creates a voyeuristic feeling that had me hooked on this film. Aided by a beautiful cast of potential victims (SIDE NOTE: That redheaded actress Megan Duffy who appears early in the film is literally the cutest thing. I just have to say that.) and a shockingly sinister Frodo, Maniac works. And it works really darn well.

Number 4 - Sleep Tight
(Directed by Jaume Balaguero.)

It's been about 11 months since I watched Sleep Tight, and just the thought of it makes me smile a sinister smile. One half of the duo behind the first two [REC] films provides this marvelous thriller in which a demented doorman (Luis Tosar, giving what is probably my favorite performance in recent memory) pines for a beautiful woman and then begins to do nasty things in the name of love.

My favorite thing about Sleep Tight is Tosar's performance, as he makes Cesar the doorman into the most Norman Bates-ish horror villain since...well, Norman Bates, probably.  I struggled with wanting to root for this guy, even though he was doing awful terrible things to this woman, because Tosar does such a good job of seeming lost in his love. It's probably kind of the same way we dudes always root for John Cusack when he stalks women, and I'm sure some feminists might say I'm evil for admitting what I just said - but the point I'm trying to make is that Sleep Tight is too good at getting the viewer involved and being creepy on a human level. And that's great horror.

Number 3 - Stoker
(Directed by Park Chan-Wook.)

The English language debut of the South Korean director behind the rightfully Vengeance trilogy, Stoker - like Sleep Tight - draws on the influence of Hitchcock and manages to be incredibly unsettling while entering into the characters' home life.

Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman both shine as the women of the film who are dealing with death, but it's the consistently undervalued Matthew Goode who steals the show as the bizarre uncle at the center of the script (which was written, oddly, by television star Wentworth Miller).  Goode is perfectly stilted (it's eerily reminscent of this his turn as Ozymandias is Watchmen, only he's in a rich country home instead of a skyscraper) and his posturing throughout the film makes the character uncomfortable to watch. Park Chan-Wook plays on the same tensions between sex and violence that filled films like Oldboy, and with help from his cast leaves us with the most engrossing horror story of the year.

Number 2 - You're Next
(Directed by Adam Wingard.)

I saw this thing three times while it was in the theater and if it was in the theater right now I would watch it again. (It's not, but it is out on blu-ray next Tuesday and I will be watching it then.)  You're Next is kind of the ultimate junction between exploitation horror and slasher horror and torture horror and home invasion horror, and I'm still kind of in awe of it living up to the hype that had built around it over the last few years.  Even more so than last year's The Cabin in the Woods - which ran away from the pack as my favorite horror movie of that year - this is a perfect party horror movie to enjoy with a group of blood-loving film fans.

But aside from just being a gory spectacle, You're Next has some of the more intriguing characters who have been brought to life in years, and several performances that pop off the screen. Sharni Vinson takes the "final girl" role to the next level, while AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci, and Joe Swanberg all shine as the competing brothers in this dysfunctional family of victims. And, to top everything off, one of my all-time favorites, Barbara Crampton, gets to scream in fear one more time. There are about 470 reasons this movie makes me smile (Larry Fessenden's in it too, you guys!), and I imagine it'll hold a place in the heart of horror fans for a long, long time.

Number 1 - Evil Dead
(Directed by Fede Alvarez.)

I don't understand why horror fans aren't all in love with this movie like I am. I mean, I do understand - it's called Evil Dead but it's not The Evil Dead and horror fans are more defensive of their territory than a pack of opossums - but most of the criticisms I've seen lobbed at this movie make absolutely no sense in my mind. (P.S. - Even though I think you're taking crazy pills - I still love you, horror fans.)

Instead of talking about what other people think, I should probably tell y'all why I love Evil Dead so much, shouldn't I?  For starters, I should also point out that I love all the other Evil Dead films as much as anyone, and I wouldn't say this one improves on those films in any way. The biggest treat for me as I look at the four films that now inhabit this franchise is that each one has a different tone and feeling for the viewer than any of the rest. While this Evil Dead mimics some of the details of its predecessors and offers more than a few winks and nods at the series, it also makes enough changes along the way to feel unique and different.

I also love the lead character created for the film. Mia, realized wonderfully by Jane Levy, is not Ash - and she also doesn't need to be Ash for the film to work. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues made a brilliant choice by introducing drug addiction to the series and Mia's arc through the story provides for maximum drama as the film unfolds. Some have decreed that this is not a "strong" female character, but this portrayal of a young woman who is dealing with addiction - a portrayal that spotlights the trials of her addiction - allows her to grow while fighting herself and the forces at work in the woods. Maybe she's not Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, but I think this kind of strong female presence is more real and accessible than it would be if the film had just made Mia a regular old-fashioned butt-kicker.

Most importantly, the film crescendos perfectly to a final confrontation that I think is as good as anything horror has produced in a long time. It's a literal bloodbath that is perhaps the goriest thing that's ever been sent to multiplex screens. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. For my money it might be the most beautiful horror sequence since Suspiria, and I don't feel like I'm being too hyperbolic when I say that.

Evil Dead has provided to be a divisive entry to the horror canon, and I am trying to understand when people voice their complaints about it. (Although, I generally feel like any complaint people have about this one is also a complaint that could be made about the original The Evil Dead - but that's a different story for a different day.)  I think the new Evil Dead is a welcome companion to the original trilogy that I love so dearly. It's one of the most exciting, thrilling, disgusting, and memorable horror films of this generation.

Have your own favorites that I missed? Love these movies too? Think I'm being ridiculous and bat-shit crazy? The comment section below is open. Here's to another great year of horror in 2014, and I can't wait to make another list and have these conversations again next January.  To paraphrase my hero Joe Bob Briggs and his thoughts on the drive-in, 2013 is a great example of why horror will never die.


(Any excuse to add Joe Bob to a post is an excuse I LOVE.)