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December 31, 2012

From Midnight, With Love's Top 11 Horror Films of 2012

We're going to 11 once again (I swear to God, that reference will NEVER GET OLD to me) here at FMWL, but it's worth noting that there's been a change in my philosophy as I reach the end of 2012.  In previous years (like 2010 or 2011), I've listed my 11 favorite genre films of that year.  But this year, I felt like changing things up - thus, we'll only primarily be talking about horror films from 2012 today.

There are two reasons for this change, one honest and one not-so-honest.  For starters, I just felt like 2012 has been overly focused on horror for me.  This may have been a record low year for me getting outside the genre (and also out to the cinema), and I just felt like I'd be better off sticking to horror on this list.  The second reason is that I simply didn't know how to deal with The Avengers. I mean, it's technically a genre film, but at the same time I'd feel terrible placing it against some of the smaller scale films on this list that I truly loved.  Whedon kind of broke the game this year, and I didn't feel like it would be fair to just write a list that says "Oh, all this stuff is good, but it's not The effing Avengers."  So, to avoid that, I'm sticking to horror.

Now that my neurotic explanation for my switcheroo is out of the way, let's get some honorable mentions out of the way.  Since I don't want to be a total excluder, I've even included a short list of my favorite non-horror films of 2012 - and, yes, The Avengers is on it.

(Disclaimer: The following honorable mention/runner-up lists are all in alphabetical order.)

(One more disclaimer: A movie is considered for the list if a) it was given a wide theatrical release in 2012, b) if it was not given a wide release and then was released on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012, or c) it was a screener sent to me in 2012 for review. I live in Iowa, so I may be a year behind some people on some of these movies.)
The Mike's Favorite Non-Horror Films of 2012
The Avengers (Directed by Joss Whedon); Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton); Extraterrestrial (Nacho Vigalando); Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie); Looper (Rian Johnson), The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans); 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller); Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh); Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij); Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols).  

(P.S. - I have not seen Django Unchained yet. Yes, that is killing me. Assume it would have made this list until I tell you otherwise.)

The Mike's Favorite Horror Films of 2012 - Honorable Mention
  • Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) - It's fun and it's slick and it's better than it should have been. (Full Review)
  • Excision (Richard Bates Jr.) - Might have the year's best performance. Annalynne McCord elevates the film above several flaws. (Full Review)
  • Father's Day (Astron-6) - The year's most inappropriately gross film.  It's Troma doing what they do as well as they can. 
  • The Hole (Joe Dante) -  Kiddie horror done well. I imagine this is what an Are You Afraid of the Dark? movie would have looked like.
  • Low (Ross Shepherd): Micro-Budget flick out of the UK that's still looking for release is a gripping morality tale with beautiful cinematography. (Full Review)
  • Pretty Dead (Benjamin Wilkins): Found Footage zombie horror that's surprisingly interesting and offers a new twist on infection-based horror. (Full Review)
  • Silent House (Chris Kentis & Laura Lau): Flawed to the core, but Elizabeth Olsen is worth seeing. (Full Review)
  • The Sleeper (Justin Russell): Slasher throwback works almost too well; falls into the same problems that plagued "classic" slasher films.  Still, a neat time capsule of a film.
The Mike's Favorite Horror Films of 2012 - First Runners Up
  • Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos) - Looks great, sounds great, is mad/crazy/weird. Does it make sense? I don't know.
  • It's in the Blood (Scooter Downey) - Lance Henriksen leads the year's most ambitious indie horror. A psychological tale of family demons that should find an audience soon. (Full Review)
  • The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne) - Brutal Aussie horror has a nice mixture of torture and high school prom drama. Really.
  • Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman) - I'm still a sucker for this series. The cracks in the armor are starting to show, but the finale here is one of the best moments they've produced yet. (Full Review)
  • Sinister (Scott Derrickson) - I find myself debating whether I loved this movie or was disappointed by it. A lot. But some of the scares are really great. (Full Review)
  • V/H/S (a bunch of directors) - Anthology by horror whiz kids is a love it or hate it flick, but I had a ton of fun. A couple of dynamite segments lift the whole film. (Full Review)
Is that enough yet? Let's get to the actual list!
From Midnight, With Love's Top 11 Horror Films of 2012
Number 11 - Rabies
(Diected by Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado.)

Billed as "Israel's first slasher film", Rabies is less like Friday the 13th or The Burning than I expected it to be.  Instead, we get a random series of bizarre and violent events that arise from the human drama between a bizarre cast of characters.  A lot of good laughs are mixed in with the brutal plot, and the film had me glued to the screen looking for whatever bizarre twist would come next. The whole thing is played for dark comedy, but at the same time it's a tragedy that would make most dramatic filmmakers proud.

Number 10 - [REC] 3: Genesis
(Directed by Paco Plaza.)

A departure from the strict one-setting found footage nature of the first two films, which also makes the film a little less effective as a pure scare machine.  At the same time, [REC] 3 takes the series in an entertaining new direction and provides an Army of Darkness style approach to horror comedy that is more than welcome.  Shedding the handheld format also allows the cast to polish there work off a little more, which allows star Leticia Dolera to look good and kick infected butt in a wedding dress. The [REC] series is scheduled to get back to being more serious in the next installment, but I don't feel like this light-hearted chapter was a misstep for the filmmakers. 

Number 9 - Midnight Son
(Directed by Scott Leberecht.)

A romantic vampire drama for adults, Midnight Son is a fascinating approach to the time-tested vampire legend. It's a genuine and heartfelt character study with two fine performances from Zak Kilberg and Maya Parish leading the way, but it also manages to have some real tension while dealing with the characters' difficulties due to the vampire condition.  Fans of serious vamp tales like Near Dark or The Addiction should feel at home with this one.

Number 8 - Kill List
(Directed by Ben Wheatley.)

The final act of Kill List might just blow your mind. The film starts out as a drama about an abusive and unhinged professional killer, but it ends up in an entirely different place.  Neil Maskell probably gives the best male performance in a horror film this year as the brutal assassin who is the centerpiece of the film, and his journey from Point A to Point B is always fascinating.  I didn't find the twist to be as shocking as advertised, but there's no denying that Kill List is a perfectly constructed horror film.

Number 7 - I Am A Ghost
(Directed by H.P. Mendoza.)

A haunting unlike any you've ever seen is at the forefront of I Am A Ghost, a film that I'm expecting to turn a lot of heads in 2013.  Anna Ishida carries what is almost a one-person show, and the structure of director H.P. Mendoza's film moves from confusing to rewarding as more is revealed to the viewer.  I Am A Ghost also gets bonus points for sending shivers up my spine by telling a scary story that we just know is going to come into play later on - and then sending more chills up my spine when it reveals exactly what it warned us about. This is one to watch out for.

Number 6 - Exit Humanity
(Directed by John Geddes.)

An epic zombie film set against nineteenth century frontier and the lingering effects of the Civil War, John Geddes' Exit Humanity is the rare "gimmick" horror film that rises above the premise and becomes something worthy of praise.  Horror veterans like Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace and Stephen McHattie assist strong newcomer Mark Gibson and help the film feel legitimate, and the zombie side of the film features some dynamite practical effects. Most impessive is the film's narrative, anchored by narration from Brian Cox, which comes off as a grand tale worth telling.  The result is one of the most impressive zombie dramas in years.
(Full Review)

Number 5 - The Pact
(Directed by Nicholas McCarthy.)

Another horror film that works because it starts out as one thing and then surprises us by becoming something different. A modern haunting story with plenty of secrets to share with us, The Pact offers up a ton of tension and builds to a eye-popping final act that completely threw me for a loop.  In fact, it took me a second viewing before I was really able to wrap my head around what The Pact was implying - not because the film was confusing, simply because the film was so unique and new to me that I had to make sure what I saw was real.  This reminds me a lot of Ti West's The House of the Devil, and that's my favorite horror movie of the last decade - so that's a good thing.

Number 4 - The Aggression Scale
(Directed by Steven C. Miller.)

There's probably only one other film on this list - and it's coming up at number one - that has as much fun with brutal violence as The Aggression Scale does.  Comparisons to Home Alone (seriously!) are inevitable, but this wacky flick in which a mute psycho kid faces off with a team of criminals on a country estate is a lot more than a R-rated Tom & Jerry film.  Dana Ashbrook and Derek Mears lead the film as two of the baddies, and young Ryan Hartwig's turn as the aggressive teen would make Rambo jealous.  This is the guys' night horror film of the year.  Director Steven C. Miller followed this up with the recent remake Silent Night, cementing himself as a director to watch out for in the future.

Number 3 - Lovely Molly
(Directed by Eduardo Sanchez.)

The most haunting film of the year has to be Lovely Molly, in which newcomer Gretchen Lodge sets the screen on fire with a fantastic performance. (Side Note: There's no questioning the fact that 2012 was won, hands down, by women in horror films. Lodge, Annalynne McCord, Elizabeth Olsen, and Anna Ishida all gave performances that are among the best I've seen in modern horror.  Neil Maskell did too, but he's outnumbered by the ladies.)  Director Eduardo Sanchez, who helped create The Blair Witch Project, balances a lot of different elements and builds to a finale that shook me up and stuck with me for several nights after I saw the film. Play this one as a double feature with The Pact and try to sleep - I dare you.

Number 2 - Some Guy Who Kills People
(Directed by Jack Perez.)

Written by Ryan Levin, a veteran of TV's comedy/drama Scrubs, Some Guy Who Kills People feels to me like a slasher movie by way of Wes Anderson. I kind of want to hug this movie, because it manages to go all serial killery while still making me both laugh at and relate to the characters that I'm watching.  A marvelous cast - from star Kevin Corrigan to comic supports Barry Bostwick and Karen Black to child star Ariel Gade - does the script justice, and a late film twist establishes the film as a story with a worthwhile message. This might not be the "hardcore" horror film you'd expect from the title, but it's one of the most rewarding movies I've seen in a while.

Number 1 - The Cabin in the Woods
(Directed by Drew Goddard.)
I legitimately feel bad for the other films on this list. I really think most of them are great and I wished some of them could be number one - but that's just not an option this year. To me, The Cabin in the Woods is a truly one-of-a-kind addition to the horror genre; a film that actually supports everything horror fans love about the genre while shaking our expectations and pointing out all the flaws in the horror system. There's simply nothing I could say to convince myself that The Cabin in the Woods wasn't head and shoulders above everything else the horror genre had to offer this year, as great as much of it was.
(Full Review)
I've had a few debates about whether or not 2012 was a banner year for horror as the year wound to a close, but now that I see this list...I'm a little stoked about the films of 2012 and what they offered horror fans.  There have been a lot of different horror movies for a lot of different crowds, and a lot of them offered new and entertaining stories to horror fans.

Agree with the list? Have favorites you wish were mentioned? There's a comment section below; you know what to do.

December 28, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #156 - Stephen King's The Night Flier

When the discussion turns to Stephen King's best pieces of writing, The Night Flier is not generally a title that gets mentioned.  I've never read the short story, which was originally published in 1988 as part of one of the authors' many anthology books, yet the 1997 film adaptation of the story has long stuck in my mind as a chilling example of King's ability to tell a scary story.
Like many King tales, The Night Flier focuses as much on its flawed human characters as it does on any supernatural force. In the film, cynical tabloid reporter Richard Dees (a character who briefly appeared in King's novel The Dead Zone) sets out to chase down a serial killer who flies around the Northeast in a black Cessna plane and leaves a bloody trail that suggests vampiric tendencies. The cape-wearing aggressor - who goes by the name Dwight Renfield, which is called out as a reference to Dracula - is the instrument that sets everything into motion, but the slimy reporter is what really draws me in to the film.
Dees is played by Miguel Ferrer, an actor who has done reprehensible and narcissistic a few times in films like Robocop and Traffic.  The character isn't that much different from what we've seen from him in other films; what is different is that we're stuck with him.  This is a man who will manipulate any situation to fit his needs - whether that means defacing a grave or trapping a competing reporter in a closet - but he's also the closest thing to a hero the story will offer us.  We've seen King do this before - Jack Torrence from The Shining is probably the most famous example, though Dees' character arc seems closer to that of the lead character in Thinner - and once again he doesn't seem to care whether or not the audience likes the guy who may or may not get eaten by an aviator vampire.  King's universe is not a place where a story needs a good guy, and Ferrer is a perfect bit of casting in that universe.
Another thing working in the favor of The Night Flier is the source material. King's prose may be best when the author is allowed to go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, but it's hard not to argue that the best film adaptations of his work come from some of his shorter tales. The Night Flier is an incredibly simple story, and there's a part of me that's surprised it wasn't whittled down to a half hour for something like Tales from the Crypt.  The film gets to 90 minutes by adding a female character who serves partially as a competitor and primarily as a sounding board for Dees' cynical rants, but it doesn't feel like this is just padding to the film. This is a tight horror film that really doesn't waste a moment as it shows us Dees' investigation and leads us toward the answer to his questions.
When The Night Flier answers those questions it makes sure that everyone is glued to the screen. In fact, I might argue that the sequence that starts with Dees finally catching up to the title character is one of the most gripping pieces of horror filmed in the 1990s. The last 20 minutes of the film feature gory moments that make us cringe - including the reveal of some awesome creature effects - and at the same time offers a chilling black-and-white sequence that feels like something out of a moody horror film from decades gone by.  Some King stories feel like they lose their way as they try to finish up their story - when they end with a random giant spider, for example - but Night Flier feels like everything wrapped up perfectly in this final sequence.
King may be best known for his epic tales of horror and fantasy, and it's hard to argue against that when it comes to his writing. But when I look at the film version of The Night Flier, despite the fact that it's a film with one interesting character and very little action before things go off the rails in the final act, it seems to me that this is a great example of how King's smaller works can make effective 90 minute horror films.  The Night Flier is entertaining because it's such a simple story and because it isn't as ambitious as some King epics. This is the story of one cynical man and one serial killing vampire, which means that the acting of Ferrer and some wonderful special effects are all it really needs to make the film work. It doesn't compare to reading Needful Things, but it's a fun horror flick that should make the author proud.

December 21, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #155 - Black Christmas

As Samuel L. Jackson would say, "When you absolutely, positively, have to have a Christmas themed horror film where a creeper kills every mother in the whole damn sorority house...accept no substitutes."

There are arguments to be made against Black Christmas. I know, I've made plenty of them before. Us horror fans find a lot of ways to get our knickers in a twist, and one of our favorite arguments is about whether or not John Carpenter "ripped off" this film when he made Halloween. If you know me - or if you just read things I write - you probably know that I'm mad in love with Halloween. So when people start to accuse it of stuff, I start to point out every little thing I can to prove them wrong. Is it juvenile? Probably. But it's fun too.
Since Halloween has been first and foremost in my horror lovin' heart for a long, long time, I've always approached Black Christmas with a skeptic's eye.  While I'll never admit that it's a better piece of work than Halloween, I have to say that each viewing has shown me more and more about how effective Bob Clark's proto-slasher can be. 
Capitalizing on a fantastic setting - a sorority house full of the kind of coeds you only found in the 1970s - Black Christmas could also be seen as an precursor of the 1978 horror hit When A Stranger Calls.  The few girls left in the house, led by the oft-drunk Margot Kidder and the timid-but-also-knocked-up Olivia Hussey, are harassed by an increasingly vile prank caller - who (unbeknownst to them) is inside the house, killing people. Like Halloween (I introduced the comparison, might as well roll with it) the characters run through the film unaware of the danger around them.
That's a big part of the twisted fun that can be had with Black Christmas. We see the actions of the killer and learn more about him than the main characters do, but we're still left in the dark about the who and why of the situation.  In the meantime, we follow Hussey around as she whines and talks to her angry boyfriend about a potential abortion and then spends the rest of the film answering the phone and being scared. Hussey's performance might be my biggest problem with the film, because her whiny performance just doesn't draw me in as well as, for example (and since we're already talkin' 'bout it) Jamie Lee Curtis' work in Halloween does.
Black Christmas' lead character might be its biggest problem, but that's a small piece of the bigger picture.  For me, Black Christmas is best viewed as an exercise in tension. Clark toys with the viewer wonderfully throughout the film, specifically when he puts the camera in the eyes of our killer. This would become common practice in horror in the years to come, but there's something very natural and gripping about the viewpoint we have as this killer stalks through the house. We know how sleazy and unhinged this killer is, thanks to the phone calls, and that makes the moments when we see potential victims through his eyes that much more uncomfortable.
I'm not one of those people who think Black Christmas is one of the best horror films of all-time - the only characters who are any fun to watch are the comic relief ones (Kidder, the house mother, the stupid deputy) and there are a few lulls thanks to the police investigation that goes on - but, like Samuel L. said in the opening, you simply can not match this film when it comes to Christmas-based chills.  And for that reason - plus one of the creepiest killers out there and an unhinged and hilarious Margot Kidder - Black Christmas is still worth seeking out when the holiday season rolls and you need your horror fix.

December 19, 2012

The Devil Inside

(2012, Dir. by William Brent Bell.)

I'm gonna start by saying that I didn't hate The Devil Inside.  Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the problem. This might be the most under-produced studio released horror film of all-time.  I'm not sure if "under-produced" is a real thing. If it was, I'd imagine that it meant that a film basically seemed to have no polish added to it and no input from an observer who could give suggestions and make the movie more prepared for selling to audiences.  Is that what a producer does? I don't know, I'm from Iowa.

Anyway, The Devil Inside is one of those horror ideas that seems like a home run from the start.  Found footage filmmaking, investigation into stranger murders, plenty of exorcists, a lot of craziness, repeat.  I know we just had The Last Exorcism like two years ago, but hey - there's always room for an exorcism in The Mike's realm.  So, when previews showed up and showed contorting creepy women and lots of evil screaming, I got an idea that this film just might work.

Instead, we get a seventy-five minute collection of scenes that push through a murder investigation, a mother/daughter relationship that has been destroyed by the potential possession, and an evolving final act - if you can even say that such a brief film has "acts" - that moves quickly and never lets the viewer get invested in what is going on.  It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid playing with action figures.  You think that the battle you're creating is an epic confrontation that accurately represents the struggle between good (i.e. - G.I. Joe, Autobots, Hulk Hogan) and bad (i.e. - Cobra, Decepticons, "Ravishing" Rick Rude). But other people just see that battle as a dumb kid smashing plastic together for 12 seconds before throwing both action figures aside so they can go eat a Jell-O Pudding Pop.

The Devil Inside just doesn't seem to know how to tell its story. In fact, this might be one of the best examples of what not to do with a found footage film.  Sure, you can get away with making your film on the cheap while filming horror this way, but you have to get the viewers invested with the conflict.  To borrow a phrase from the brilliant deconstruction  of the slasher film in Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, The Devil Inside seems to need "an Ahab."  (The Cliff's Notes definition of Ahab: A character - generally older, battle-worn, and male - in the story who is so passionate about the evil they face that they make us believe in said evil.) If The Devil Inside would have supplemented the hand held sequences in some passionate exposition from an actor like Malcolm McDowell or Robert Englund or the late Donald Pleasence, and you'd suddenly have a much more engaging film. Look at Pleasence in Halloween: the whole reason he's there is to spout nonsense about how serious the danger is, just so the audience understands it. And it works. Not enough horror films use the Ahab these days, and it's a darn shame.  You could take this film, sprinkle a bit of Ahab commentary throughout the film, tack that Ahab on to the ending, and watch it instantly become better.  But hey, why pay for a good actor when you can throw a website address on the screen at the end? (Yes, it happens.)

A counterargument could be made that no film about demons - or possibly the Devil himself - needs to remind the viewer how serious the situation is.  But you should still never underestimate the impatience of horror viewers.  Besides, it's not like the film is an overly smart piece of horror fiction. (On a related note, don't let those "based on a true story" title cards fool you.)  There's nothing profound going on between the characters - the daughter of the possessed, a couple of priests, and a documentarian - and the force behind the film's possession is perhaps the most bland and uninteresting demon/devil you'll ever see on film.

And then there's the abrupt ending, which many perceive as a slap in the face to the audience. I had heard about the ending before seeing the film, so I was very eager to see how it played out.  I don't think I'd jump to calling it the worst ending ever - plenty of others have - but it's definitely a surprising way to stop the film. The film's listed run time is 83 minutes, but the final shot of the film occurs almost exactly at the 75 minute mark.  And then the credits roll at what appears to be half the speed of normal film credits*. They roll, in silence, for 8 minutes. And that's it. The movie's over. They could have at least had Ferris Bueller tell us all it was time to go home.

(* - I actually did the math. It takes each name 35 seconds to get from the bottom of the screen to the top during the end credits. In comparison, recent release Silent Night had end credits that take 8 seconds. Another recent horror, The Pact, shows each name for 4 seconds. Why am I pointing this out? Because it absolutely blows my mind that The Devil Inside pads its runtime by 8 minutes with end credits.)

Now that I've said all that, I wasn't insulted by The Devil Inside.  It has some decent moments, particularly in the exorcism/demon scenes, and it's not completely inept when the action's going on.  There's a rather effective scene at a baptism, and the 15 minutes leading up to the ending seem like they're leading somewhere.  Sure, that makes it even worse when the final shots occur, but at least there was something there.

The Devil Inside isn't the worst horror film I've seen this year, and it's honestly not even close to that title. But it is one of the most sadly ineffective films I've seen. Like I warned in the beginning, it feels like the film needed a whole lot of polish before it was ready to be released all over the world. A less frantic, more involving approach would have done wonders for this story. As is, The Devil Inside exists as a fascinating failure and a half-cooked waste of time.

December 17, 2012


(2012, Dir. by Scott Derrickson.)

I talk a lot about "found footage" movies here at FMWL, but this time the movie I'm talking about goes a step further.  That film is Sinister, which is literally a found footage film - a film about a dude who finds some home movies that contain all he needs for a horror film to break out around him.

Ethan Hawke stars as a writer of non-fiction crime novels, ten years removed from the death row expose that brought him fame and fortune.  He's married now, with two children, but he's still chasing his next big story - which leads him to moving his family into a murder house.  It's a unique murder house in the sense that we are shown what happened - and said happening appears to be the act of an invisible force.

Like any good horror character with a knack for research, this father quickly becomes obsessed with the case thanks to a box of short Super 8 films that show him what we've seen and a series of other murders that fit the same pattern.  In less than a week's time in the murder house, things go terribly wrong and demonic forces come out to play.

The plot has more twists and turns than I expected, which leads Sinister to some rather bizarre places.  Hawke's character starts to ask plenty of the questions we're asking - things like "Who made the tapes?" and "What in the name of the Blair Witch is going on here?*" - but the film takes its time with the answers and toys with the viewer for as long as it can.  There were moments when I got stuck in the same "rational outside observer" trap that non-horror fans often slip into - I kept thinking things like "Why doesn't anyone turn on the lights?" and "Where does a demon get his claws on all this Super 8 film in 2012?" - because Sinister takes such a mischievous approach to its story.  Most of the plot points come together in the end - for better or worse - but the film keeps the viewer in the dark (no pun intended, even though no one in the movie EVER uses a light switch to illuminate their setting) to the reasons why until much later than I expected. (In fact, one of the film's biggest reveals, which appears in some of the trailers for the film, actually only comes out in the final 10 minutes of the film.)

(* - The flick may not actually reference Blair Witch, but I get the feeling that one of the writers may have offered a sacrifice to what is basically the Lord and Creator of all found footage related horror films of this millennium.)

Though many of Sinister's scare sequences seem like random parts of an unhinged story, there's never a dull moment in the film.  Director Scott Derrickson - who impressed me with The Exorcism of Emily Rose once upon a time - refuses to use much light in the film and keeps the sound loud to get maximum unease from the viewer.  Much like the Paranormal Activity films, I felt like there were some times when the effect the film had on me was the result of physical stimulation - loud noises, squinting to make out shapes in the dark, etc. - than mental involvement. There are probably too many scenes that end with Hawke wandering around, looking confused, and stumbling into a big shrill scare - but at the same time, many of these scenes end up working really well.

It's also worth noting that the demon which is introduced is intimidating and spooky, which does a lot for the film.  The footage from the films that we see throughout Sinister is incredibly well done, and the slow reveal of the force behind it all is handled wonderfully.  These sequences are definitely the film's greatest successes. In fact, they're so good that some of the other attempts to scare seem unnecessary in comparison.  It's kind of like the footage/demon parts are the good movie, and the other scares with insects and snakes and ghosts and what not are the dumb things people add to the good movie's bad sequel. (Did, I just turn another complement toward the movie into a backhanded insult? Yeah, I think I did.)

There's a definite style over substance thing going on for Sinister, and those who will get caught up in the plot's contrived turns - like I obviously have at times - may lose their patience for Derrickson's film.  I'm still a little undecided as to how much I really liked Sinister on the whole, but at the same time it feels like the type of horror movie I'd throw on with some friends just to watch everyone squirm and shout.  That's worth something, I think, so I'd say Sinister is definitely an addition to the horror genre that's worth seeking out.  It's got a lot of great things going on, and I've got a good feeling that it's the kind of horror film I'll go back to over time.

December 12, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #154 - Body Snatchers

Y'all probably know by know that a remake can be a dangerous thing. The minute you start making one is the minute someone starts getting mad about it.  You can prove them wrong once in a while - more often than most people think, I'd argue - but there's always gonna be people mad about it.  You have to be a little insane to remake something that's widely called a classic - but you have to be even more insane to remake a classic that's already been remade and remade well.
That insanity can work in your favor sometimes.  Case in point: Body Snatchers, the 1993 update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  This version started with a story co-written by Larry Cohen (The Stuff, It's Alive), moved on to a script co-written by Re-Animator power duo Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli and was directed by Abel Ferrera, who's most known for gritty crime flicks like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant.  It seems like a random assortment of talent to the casual observer, which is part of what makes this Body Snatchers tale unique.
Don Siegel's 1955 original film - adapted from Jack Finney's novel, which is credited as the source material here - used the idea of identity-stealing pod-people as a commentary on the communist scare of that time period.  The first remake, by Philip Kaufman in 1978, is updated for that time period (with struggling artists and empowered women!) and maintains the main premise and California setting.  Ferrera and company, however, decided to take the film in a different direction - moving the action to a military base in the southern United States.
While previous versions of the story focused on strong male leads trying to make sense of the invasion, Ferrara's film puts most of the drama on the shoulders of a teenage girl, played by the talented Gabrielle Anwar.  Through her turn as the daughter of an environmentalist who is stationed on the base, the film spends less time trying to figure out who the invaders are and how they work than those that came before it.  The teenager is dealing with her own issues - she's very emotional, if not fully "emo" - well before she stumbles into an aliens-who-take-over-our-identities-and-show-no-emotions fiesta.  This means that a) she's not one of them overly scientific people that try to solve the what and the why of the situation, and b) she does the natural thing we'd expect a teenager to do in this situation - runs away.
Anwar's Marti, along with her little brother Andy, can't be blamed for their fear as they deal with the escalating "hive mind" situation that they are a part of.  One of the film's most haunting scenes has young Andy realizing he's not like the other children in the day care center on base, thanks to some repetitive and tentacle-y finger paintings.  Subtlety is one thing this film definitely lacks - a lot of scenes like this are telegraphed and almost too easy for folks who know the story to predict - but the film still manages to be patient and artistic as it quietly shows us the snatchers' hold on the community.  This sequence works perfectly because it's framed delicately and given a chance to really sink into the viewer's mind. To put the film's approach in simple terms, it's as if Ferrara shows us that there's a monster running at us and then makes us patiently watch as the monster gets closer and our vision of it becomes clearer. We aren't surprised by what we see, but the increasing clarity about the attack makes the tension grow within us.
The most perfect example of this film's blatant, yet slow-moving brand of horror is the performance given by Meg Tilly as the seemingly evil stepmother turned actually evil stepmother.  The monologue that allows an emotionless pod-Tilly to explain the scale of the attack to her scared family is one of the greatest crazy/calm scenes on film, and the silky voiced actress - who would later loan her talents to the Child's Play series - is the key to the film maintaining its power as a quieter version of the Body Snatchers tale.  As if her reminder that humanity is kind of screwed isn't enough, she gets to do what I call "the big scream" - a throwback to the '78 adaptation - which send chills all the way up my spine for what feels like infinity.
There's something pretty fantastic about the way Ferrara and company get these actors to sell the difference between themselves and their pod-selves, especially as he manages to still surprise us with a few turns in the final act. The first two Body Snatcher films feel like their primarily interested in stopping "them", while this take on the story is more about protecting "us" and our identities. The military setting is obviously not an accidental choice, and the film's commentary on the military's interest in squashing emotion and creating controllable soldiers is a nice parallel to the pod person problem.  But this military aspect is less interesting to me than how the film abandons the scientific focus of the other films and switches its focus entirely to the fight to maintain our individuality.
It's a neat switch, even if some of the supporting actors aren't as talented as Anwar, Tilly, and Forest Whitaker (whose performance as the on-base doctor allows for a bit of the paranoia that ran rampant in the other films) when the film needs them to help sell the.  I've spent much of this space commenting on how the film compares to those other films, but there are plenty of reasons to laud this surreal and haunting spin on Finney's novel as its own beast.  It works a lot better than most remakes do, and it holds up today as one of the most effective horror films of the 1990s.

December 11, 2012

8 Things I Love About... House on Haunted Hill '99

That time when Lisa Loeb and Spike went on a rollercoaster.
Spooky eye stained glass.
Chris Kattan freaking the heck out.
Things with old spoky wheels always creep me out.
The wicked sensory depravation/crazy making room.
And plenty of other drop-ins from the esteemed Mr. Combs.

Bloody naked scary women in black and white and red.
You'll never top Price and Ohmart, but Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen are a fantastic match.

December 10, 2012


(2012, Dir. by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence.)

The anthology horror film gets a hip new face with V/H/S, an unpolished collection of horror tales from some of the cool new kids in horror. Keeping with another cool new horror trend, V/H/S also plays out using the found footage technique, with characters controlling the action in each of the stories.

The wrap-around story follows a group of twenty something criminals who make money by tricking and/or forcing women into getting naked, until the day they get a big money assignment to break in to a country home and steal a VHS tape.  When they arrive, they find a creepy old dead man and a lot of tapes, each of which hold a different spooky surprise.

Each of the stories that break up the criminals' bumbling adventure is its own mini-found footage film, each of which is presented in a different manner.  One is a home movie of a romantic vacation, another is footage taken from some spy camera glasses, another seems to be a recording of a Skype conversation.  About the only things these stories have in common are a) violent surprises and b) men who try to get women to show their breasts.  I'm not saying this is the most misogynistic horror movie I've seen, but it does seem kind of like the male directors/writers created their scripts while drinking at a frat party.  (Meanwhile, it's probably best not to think about how there happens to be an old VHS tape of a Skype conversation or how video from a pair of glasses with a camera in them gets on tape either.)

Once you get past how juvenile the stories and characters can be, the five short films are often very effective.  The first segment is a bit of a chore to get through, thanks to some grating camera work and annoying characters, but it still offers a neat twist and some impressive special effects for a film on this budget.  The second segment - directed by FMWL favorite Ti West - is one of the highlights of the film, showcasing some creepy stalker imagery and shocking finale.  A slasher segment with a twist in the middle of the film is a little bit of a let down, but it's followed up by a the bizarre and inventive Skype-ish segment which stands out as the most unpredictable piece of the film

The final segment is probably the best example of the film's problems and successes as they come together.  I also think it's my favorite part of the film.  Directed by and starring members of a group who are credited as Radio Silence, it features more obnoxious young males drinking, swearing, and hoping to party - only to stumble into a haunting situation.  The sequence features a lot of "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" scares, and leads to the film's best Twilight Zone-style surprise.  It's a film that could have been put together a lot of ways, but I think it ends at the most perfect moment.

V/H/S is a highly flawed film, but its radical approach to horror is a breath of fresh air to me.  The handheld cinematography is often a drawback and some juvenile writing (including an impressive number of excuses to show female breasts) will leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who wants their horror to rise above the cliches that give the genre a bad name.  But when you get past those issues - which will be hard for some, since they are blatant and persistent throughout the film - the ideas behind these horror stories have a lot to offer.  It's kind of like a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet version of the horror anthology - there's a lot there, but you have to take the bad with the good. 

If nothing else, V/H/S stands as an interesting statement on how versatile the new breed of horror filmmakers can be. You can see that they're horror fans, and a large part of their appeal to horror fans is the fact that we can see a recognition of horror conventions in their films.  But these young guns have a lot of ideas that shake even the most experienced horror fans' expectations. V/H/S raises as many questions as it answers about these young filmmakers, but they did enough to keep me fascinated in where the film was going next, which led to a smooth and enjoyable two-hour horror experience.  It's not for everyone, but V/H/S works well enough for me.

December 7, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #153 - Slaughter High

In a lot of cases, the difference between a slasher film and a revenge thriller is your opinion of the killer. Sure, there are a lot of stylistic differences between a film like Death Wish and a film like Slaughter High, and you wouldn't be able to mistake one for the other if you tried. But one of the things that I find most interesting about the typical slasher film of the 1980s is how similar the plots to these films are to the kind of films that Charles Bronson and others were making in the 1970s. If someone were to tell me that they were watching a movie in which a character suffered a deep trauma and later started killing those responsible, I would probably picture a Bronson-esque anti-hero immediately.
I probably would not picture someone who looks like Simon Scuddamore, the 28 year old actor who co-stars in Slaughter High. Scuddamore plays nerdy teenager Marty, the ill-fated victim of an April Fool's Day prank that goes too far and then returns ten years later to seek revenge on the cool kids as they return for their class reunion. His motivation can be compared to Bronson's - but that's about as close as this movie comes to being one of those noble vigilante films.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that Marty is too far gone down the path to crazy town to be anything but a villain.  (Speaking of too far gone, it's unfortunate that the young Scuddamore, who made his film debut here, died by his own hands shortly after the film was completed.)
There's a little bit of a dilemma that can be found when you consider the fact that this group of pranksters, led by my true love Caroline Munro (who sports a loud hairstyle and seems comfortable playing an actress named Carol), are not really good guys.  The situation that put poor Marty into the deranged and deformed business was directly their fault, which makes Slaughter High something of an outlier when compared to its slasher brethren.  A common theme of this subgenre is punishment for sins, but most films offer up a sympathetic character or two who find themselves in the path of our killer despite their innocence (or at least their willingness to repent).  Munro and company were all directly involved in the pranks that set Marty off, which makes Slaughter High more of an exercise in slasher traditions than a story that provides any meaningful moral content.
A low budget production from the UK, Slaughter High is most memorable because it stays inventive throughout the film.  Marty has a lot of different ideas for punishing his prey, and the film does a good job of setting each up and preparing the viewer for what will follow.  The April Fool's Day theme is very appropriate, because many sequences feel like the killer is letting us in on the joke before he springs a trap on unsuspecting victims.  The image of Marty in the present day - wearing an old letter jacket and a bizarre jester mask and hat - also plays into the killer's playful opinion of justice, speaking volumes about his intentions while the character himself remains mostly silent.
I'm making Slaughter High sound more profound than it is - it's really not profound at all - but it's nice to find a movie at the tail end of the slasher's "golden age" that doesn't just follow the same path we've been down dozens of times before.  Slaughter High is a fun watch, and it's the fun (yet stupid) slasher films that get me thinking about how this why this whole slasher movie family is so much fun to watch (even when it's stupid).  I could sit here and pick apart the bad things about Slaughter High - for crying out loud, it's a film with no good guys! - but that wouldn't be any fun. And Slaughter High is fun, especially when it goes off the rails in the final act and twists the plot around too many times. 
Slaughter High probably isn't what most would call a good movie, and there's a little bit of The Mike in the back of my head that's telling me how silly I am for covering it when there's more profound genre films out there that are worth your time.  But it got me thinking about the whole revenge aspect of slasher films one more time, and while it did that it showed me a watchable '80s slasher film. And Marty looks pretty creepy in that last picture. And that's good enough for me this week.