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February 28, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #165 - Dan Curtis' Dracula

There are more films about Dracula than there are deaths in the Friday the 13th series (OK, I just made that up, but it might be accurate), so it's never a surprise when one pops up and I'm like "Huh, I didn't know that was a thing."  Such was the case when I came across a 1974 adaptation of Dracula by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis.  Now, Dark Shadows is one of those things I've never really "got" - I'm too young to have been there when it happened and it seems too Twilighty when I watch it these days - but I do recognize that the man behind this iconic creation had an eye for Gothic romantic horror.  And sometimes, curiosity is all it takes to make me leap.
Curtis' version is billed as a straight adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but the story written by the legendary Richard Matheson for this TV movie takes a few liberties with the novel - which makes it just like every other adaptation of the tale.  The set up is the same - British real estate dude Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania, meets Dracula, and leads Dracula to London where he obsesses over Jonathan's bride/fiance (depending on the version) Mina.  The twist, which Curtis admits is clearly a rip off (of himself), as he borrows from the love storyline of his hit series and makes Mina the spitting image of his long lost lover. The result is another melodramatic Dracula tale, but one with a key element that keeps the film edgy.
That edge is provided by the man in the title role, respected gruff guy Jack Palance. It's an odd casting (if nothing else, Palance's head doesn't seem to be the shape of the head I expect from Dracula) and one that immediately piqued my interest in the production.  This isn't like having Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi in the role, because Palance is all about the intensity and doesn't offer much of the suave romanticism that his counterparts brought the table.  I mean, when Lee snarls at the camera because his brides are being wenches it's cool and scary. When Palance does it it's like he's a cat facing off with a dog and putting on the snarl. It's animalistic and harsh and unsettling - which is cool in its own way, but not at all comforting.  This is not the film where you're going to see Dracula making hungry eyes at his victim like Patrick Swayze would in the role.
Palance works in the role because the film allows him to suck all the air out of the melodrama whenever he needs to.  The performance does an excellent job of keeping the film in horror territory, because we don't get the feeling that Dracula is the tortured, yet soothing, soul that he's often portrayed to be. Palance's Dracula is all about the tortured side of the character, and is presented as an uncaged beast who longs for his love but doesn't proceed with anything less than a determined rage. It is not what we are used to from Dracula, but it is unique and thought provoking.
You could argue that a romantic Dracula movie with an unromantic lead is problematic, and you'd be right to assume that the film has some issues. Curtis' film won't win many prizes for style or substance - though it does send some chills when utilizing Dracula's brides around Jonathan Harker - but there's a unique intrigue to this vision of the Dracula legend. The scowling performance by Palance and the soap opera-esque twist to the plot don't really fit together, but they each work on their own. Perhaps that's the most interesting fact about this Dracula; the fact that it's basically two different Draculas in one place.
The common thread that ties these two Draculas together is the pain that the Count is experiencing, and Curtis' film hammers that point home with no subtlety. A Dracula film that relies this much on misery really only works with the confluence of factors here. Palance looks like a truly beaten Drac throughout much of the film, and we buy into his quest for his lost love because he looks so intense about it, not because he's being the suave version of the character that we're used to seeing. It's an odd idea, and one that's not going to sell the film very well to the romantic horror crowd, but it establishes this film as its own beast. It's not the version that's going to make anyone forget about Lugosi or Lee (and it's occasionally laughable when it goes too far into melodrama) but it feels like an interesting addition to the Dracula mix.

February 23, 2013

Dark Skies

(2013, Dir. by Scott Stewart.)

One of the most interesting arguments about movies, at least to me, is the one that compares movie viewing to addiction.  Most addiction theories talk about how an addict buys in to a high, but it's a high that decreases over time. The theory says that the high is greatest at first, but later in the addict's life the tolerance builds up and they can never reach that same feeling again. The theory makes sense there, and, unfortunately, occasionally makes sense with movies too.

If you're a horror fan like me, then consider that time when you were a kid and were first really scared by a movie.  You probably thought it could happen to you and came up with safe guards to prevent yourself from the movie and all kinds of silly kid things. Some people don't, but I know I did. Heck, I thought there might be something under the bed till I was 18. Did I get picked on and bullied in school? Sure I did. But it was a for a good cause.

Time, however, reveals all things. The more horror we watch, the more we become accustomed to the tricks, the more we start to recognize the twists, and the more we become cynical toward what we see. That first time you saw someone jump out from behind someone in a horror movie sure made you scream, but now think of the 437th time you saw it happen. Did you laugh? I probably laughed. Doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, but it does mean that I didn't feel the same shock.

Which brings me to Dark Skies, a new horror movie full of old horror movie tricks. It follows in the footsteps of successful films from the same producers - as noted by the poster it's clearly riding the coattails of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, not to mention last year's creeper Sinister - which means it uses a lot of the same moves that we've already seen. The lighting, the music, and even the settings are entirely familiar to anyone who has seen those films. And it's not like those flicks were the first to use bump-in-the-night tactics to get audiences' attentions, which makes the film even more familiar to horror addicts. It's hard to really be shocked by anything contained in this film, whose biggest flaw is existing in the wake of literally thousands of films that have the same style.

Now that I've gotten my old man horror rant out of the way (And, good lord, it took me long enough!), here's the kicker - Dark Skies is a pretty competent little horror film. The plot follows the same arc that we've seen in the previously mentioned films, with the major tweak being that demons or ghosts have been replaced by aliens. This is sure to draw skepticism from plenty of viewers, and some of the reveals are a little silly. Yet the film never fully goes off the cliff of realism and manages to keep its feet as it moves through this battle with an increasingly problematic adversary.

The film gets most of its strength from the two actors in the lead. Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are the married couple who, along with their two children, are terrorized by visitors and both give grounded and interesting performances. Russell is the bigger name and the one who is given the most screen time to uncover oddities and react with unease, but the character written for Hamilton is a truly interesting twist on the usual. Films of this sort often miss with the male character (i.e. - Mee-kah in Paranormal Activity), but Hamilton's character is never completely skeptical or distant from the proceedings. It's a fantastic addition to the film when we see this man go through a human range of emotions without being one note, and it cements that Dark Skies isn't just a cash in on a formula.

Of course, the fact that Dark Skies follows a formula I've seen a plethora of times doesn't discount the film for those who don't know the formula. As I watched the film tonight, a family of four with two pre-teen daughters sat across the aisle. Did one of the daughters scream loudly about 20 times during the movie? Yes, yes she did. Did I smile every time? Yes, yes I did. It was those moments, in which a young horror viewer reacted to the same kind of things I used to react to, that made me appreciate everything Dark Skies has to offer, both on its own and as a member of the horror family. The film works on the simplest level of horror, which should grab the viewers with a low tolerance, and offers new twists like the well-written family dynamic and some surprising dream sequences for the high tolerance folks like myself. Dark Skies will never go down as a revelation in the horror genre, but I'm pretty comfortable saying it does enough right to make it worth a viewing.

One Minute Review - The Victim

(2011, Directed by Michael Biehn.)

Kind-of genre icon Michael Biehn (it's hard to argue against the Terminator/Aliens/Abyss trifecta) stars in his own directorial debut as a reclusive gruff guy who becomes the center of a survival picture.  A bad girl (Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's real world wife) evades the men who just killed her friend (horror fave Danielle Harris) and holes up with the resourceful character in an attempt to fend off the killers.

Biehn keeps the whole thing moving at a quick pace, with well-placed flashbacks to show Blanc and Harris' plight. The goal was obviously to remind us of grindhouse thrillers of the past, and The Victim does a pretty good job of getting the tone right as it focuses on sex and violence.  Biehn is excellent in the lead, and the acting is sufficient across the board.

There are a lot of positives, but the picture never really has a spectacular moment and the villains are one-note and dull. An abrupt conclusion implies a neat twist but doesn't close anything, leaving the small film feeling like a good attempt, but not a total success toward its psychosexual goals.

Items of Note: Two sex-related deaths. One extended sex scene between real-life couple. Plenty of flashbacks of Harris strutting her bad girl stuff.  Three deaths. Bizarre picture credits that include most of the crew.  Biehn starring as Kyle, which just makes me think of Kyle Reese from Terminator. Se7en mimicking. One impressive mustache.

The Score: 3 Angry Biehns out of 5.

February 22, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #164 - TerrorVision

I just saw TerrorVision yesterday, after long hearing about it as one of the 1980s' most wacky horror entries, and I'm quickly becoming convinced that it might be the most eighties horror movie I've seen. That's not necessarily a good thing by all accounts - there were moments when I stared at the screen and thought 'Wait, people thought that was a good idea?" - but all of these oddities do firmly establish the film as one of the definitive horror curios of an era.
Preying on the cable TV boom of the 1980s, TerrorVision revolves around the installation of a satellite dish that accidentally invites a monster from outer space to planet Earth. If the idea sounds ridiculous, that's because it is; the film appears to have been designed primarily as a comedy and a throwback to monster movies of a bygone era. The main program featured on the TV screen within the movie screen is an Elvira-esque monster movie showcase hosted by a big-breasted Medusa (which makes the movies that features a screen within a screen within a screen!) which allows the film to show off classic monster battles via Harryhausen and not-so-classic monster battles such as Robot Monster.  There's a definite love for the cheesy side of horror at work here, which is where much of the film's charm comes from.
The dish in question is set up by the patriarch of a family that would seem like something out of a 1950s sitcom - if people in the '50s were swingers who had neon decor and lots of oversized electronics. The cast is led by Gerrit Graham and Mary Woronov, two veterans of bizarre cinema, as the parents in this neon household, along with their two kids (Amityville II's Diane Franklin and young Chad Allen) and "Grampa", played by veteran actor Bert Remsen.  It's easy to see that writer/director Ted Nicolaou is lampooning the family structure preached by TV shows of the past, he just does it in a way that includes bizarre clothes, hairstyles, and actions.
Alongside this wacky family, the film offers us a monster that is disgusting and one of its kind.  It's a mushy mess of pinkish/purplish gloop with more eyes and tentacles than you'd expect from anything on this planet. It's a goofy monster that won't inspire much terror, but the creature's voracious appetite leads to some decidedly gross moments as it picks off members of the family and their acquaintances (including Jon Gries, who would grow up to be Napoleon Dynamite's Uncle Rico, as a metalhead teen) in strange ways.  Nicolaou manages to pepper in some brief creepy moments, particularly a sequence involving the parents' love den and swimming pool, but the film's top priority in its monster scenes is clearly a gross and comedic tone.
Despite its sensational title, TerrorVision belongs next to films like The Monster Squad and Killer Klowns from Outer Space due to its tongue in cheek nature.  It might not have all the charm of some of its contemporaries, but it's notable because it seems to be more connected to its time and place than many of those films.  TerrorVision is a movie for everyone who remembers the wacky fashions and the obsession with television that plagued that era. Nicolaou would go on to a solid career working with producer Charles Band for Full Moon Features (including helming their best film, Subspecies) but, unlike most films from that studio, TerrorVision has a level of charisma that makes it a film worth coming back to if you're looking for a cheap bit of '80s fun that you don't need to take too seriously.

February 21, 2013


(2012, Dir. by David Cronenberg.)

Yeah, I'll admit it - I kind of put Cosmopolis on the back burner when it came out. Cronenberg's last film, A Dangerous Method, left me a little disappointed, but the main reason I ignored this movie was because it starred that Twilight guy. Look, I'm on the internet a ton and I hear people talk and I've picked up that it's not cool to like Twilight - which is great, because I've never given the series much thought - but I should have poo-pooed that bias and seen Cosmopolis in the first place. 

And so it came to pass that I was in the video store last weekend and looked up at this strange trailer that was playing on one of the TVs in the store and was instantly like "WHOA, what the frank is that crazy looking, good looking movie?"  And the answer was Cosmopolis. And I remembered how good Cronenberg can be when he's good. I'm not saying I made a beeline across the store, but I definitely made it a priority and didn't go home without it. 

(I'm also not gonna lie about one other thing - the moment in that trailer when i went from "I kinda wanna see that crazy looking, good looking movie." to "I GOTTA see that crazy looking, good looking movie!" was when the trailer showed the name of Kevin Durand, known forever to me as 'The Goonest Looking Guy in The World" as one of the stars. That guy is awesome.)

Which brings us to me actually watching Cosmopolis, an experience that quickly became a great one. I'm not necessarily sure I can tell you the movie is a great one - I saw it like four days ago and it's still rolling around my head and bouncing off of questions, usually without finding answers - but I can tell you that it works on a purely bizarre plane of cinema where nothing makes sense and every next scene is a mystery. The plot, in its basest form, follows millionaire businessman Eric Packer (played by Pattinson) who sets off across the city in his bright white limousine to get a haircut. Sounds like a boring plot, no? Well, you're in luck because the city in question is in an unpredictable state of political and financial turmoil, which means there's a metaphorical bullseye on the lead's head - which becomes literal when threats on his life are received by his chief of security (the awesome Durand, who looks as goon as ever, even in a suit) and riots break out throughout the city.

As Packer makes his trip across the city, perched in an eerily throne-like back seat and surrounded by a rotating troupe of associates, doctors, and prostitutes the film occasionally resembles an incoherent crackbaby parented by Ferris Bueller's Day Off and David Fincher's The Game.  Packer interacts with those around him using stunted means of communication, having incredibly personal dialogues with others while using as few words as possible.  We learn a lot about the man - about everything from his business empire to his marriage to his prostate - while never really getting too close to feel like he's much of a human.

As such, the pale and uncomfortable Pattinson is actually a perfect fit for the lead role. The actor seems to be very aware of himself in the role and never flinches despite the bizarre things going on.  Growing up around football coaches, one of the lessons that has always stuck with me was that a consistent commitment to the cause and a "buy in" to the goal at hand is often much more important than talent - and I feel like that's where Cronenberg and Pattinson were working here. I'm sure that Cronenberg - who has had films focused on talents like James Woods, Jeremy Irons, and Viggo Mortenson - could get almost any actor he wanted to play a lead that is on screen for nearly every minute of this film - but the marriage between he and Pattinson is the marriage that the film needed. It's gutsy casting, but I think it pays off.

The film also brings an all-star supporting cast to the table, even if most appear for only one sequence. Notable names like Juliette Binoche, Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti show up for a sequence each, and each brings something useful and interesting to the discussion.  One of the more attention grabbing segments features Emily Hampshire as a business associate who meets with Packer as he's also getting an exam from his doctor, and this early film segment might be the first real clue that this journey is going to go off the rails as the day goes on. The two people who show up alongside Pattinson most often in the film are Durand and Sarah Gadon, who might be the film's most fascinating mystery as Packer's new wife and the object of his desires. She is - not coincidentally - one of the few reasons he ever leaves the controlled environment of the limousine, and the cold of the character when interacting with the equally distant lead character really fits perfectly within the film's odd tone.

I'm not going to sit here and try to make sense of the bizarre film - on one hand it's quite straight forward, on the other it's batcrap insane - because that's a task for someone much smarter and more eloquent than I am. But I am going to recommend Cosmopolis to those who are interested in abstract cinema, because what Cronenberg has put together here is certainly the right kind of cinematic trip. There's some rust around the edges and the film never really becomes profound, but it's ambitious and different and (most importantly) interesting.  This isn't quite Cronenberg at his best, but it's a step in the right direction and a movie that is worth thinking about.

February 15, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #163 - Halloween III: Season of the Witch

When I was a teenager, I hated Halloween III with a pretty solid passion. Or at least I said I did.  I think I always kind of enjoyed the completely nonsensical film, but I was a Michael Myers fanboy extraordinaire, and I was all "OH MY GOD, I can't believe they tried to make a Halloween movie without Michael! How dare they mess with the integrity of Halloween II! As if!"  I was kind of a mix between Alicia Silverstone in Clueless and WCW superstar Lance Storm at the time, because I used "As if!" and took things way too seriously. Then I kept getting older and I lightened up a bit.
Nowadays, I look at Halloween III: Season of the Witch and I just smile.  I don't have disdain, I don't even laugh at it. Because the thing that confused teenage me is one of the most perfectly abstract and ridiculously nightmarish horror movies out there. Sure, there are so many parts of it that don't make a lick of sense, but that's the beauty of Tommy Lee Wallace's bizarre addition to the Halloween franchise.
I suppose I should back up and clarify, in case there are some uninitiated folks reading this: Yes, Halloween III is in no way a sequel to Halloween II, nor is it related to Halloween - although the 1978 film actually has a cameo in this film.  John Carpenter and Debra Hill, now producers to the series, would only agree to make a third film if it was not a direct follow up to the previous films, which led them to hire Hammer Films veteran Nigel Kneale to pen a new kind of thriller. Unfortunately for Kneale, and most likely the film's chances of being taken seriously, big budget producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted more blood and more gore, which resulted in Wallace scrambling to rewrite the script and Kneale removing his name from the film.
If you've seen the film and didn't know any of the information above - just like I did when I was younger - you would probably still figure out that all the cylinders weren't firing in the right rhythm as this film was made.  The plot can't be explained without spoiling many of the film's twists - so anyone who hasn't seen it and REALLY wants to be befuddled should probably stop reading now and come back later - because the film just seems weird before we learn about the killer Halloween masks and robohenchmen and possible connection to druid rituals and star worship.  (And when I say "star worship," I mean Ursa Major-style, not Bruce Willis-style.)  These developments in the plot only make the film weirder, and attempts to clean up the story are dismissed as the antagonist says things like "a great magician never explains."  It's a jumble of bad ideas, but it's a darn fun jumble.
The plot is all over the place, but it's not a big deal because the film has so much fun with it. Things are taken very seriously, as the musical score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth (which is seriously one of my favorite horror scores ever) pulsates throughout, keeping pace with the tension of the mysterious plot. The first act is full on murder mystery, and I can't imagine being in the audience with a blind eye when this one was released. This had to be a Psycho style shock to the audience, if not in quality then at least in ridiculousness, because there really isn't anything like this movie's plot out there. Considering it was billed as the follow-up to two of the prototypes for the slasher film - which had become a booming industry in the past five years - there had to be more than a few viewers completely taken by surprise when the mystical mask murder plot became evident.
For me, it's almost impossible to look at Halloween III and not think "What they heck were they thinking?"  But I'm so grateful that this mistake of a masterpiece was allowed to be.  As the film becomes a bizarre showdown between the overly manly Tom Atkins and the sardonic Don O'Herlihy, it becomes more and more noticeable that the talents involved in this film far outweigh the script's difficulties.  Halloween III doesn't make a ton of sense - heck, it's subtitled SEASON OF THE WITCH and the only witch is a Halloween mask - but it's a well made mess (by the way, it's also one of the best looking horror films of the '80s) with great actors and that musical score that alone is worth the price of admission. I see why young me hated it, and yet I see why new me recognizes that young me was a doofus. And I'm fine with that.

February 12, 2013

Sleep Tight

(2011, Dir. by Jaume Balaguero.)

Sleep Tight is a very simple thriller that makes itself great through very extraordinary methods.  The obsessed stalker subgenre has been an American favorite at times - particularly around the late '80s and early '90s - but this Spanish chiller dares to take risks that many filmmakers would avoid.  The result of those risks is a film that kind of blew my mind.

The story primarily follows two characters - Cesar (played by Luis Tosar), the concierge at a pretty decent apartment building; and Clara (played by Marta Etura) a twentysomething tenant who is young, beautiful, and the object of Cesar's lust.  In fact, we learn very quickly that Cesar spends most of his evenings hiding under Clara's bed and waiting until she's asleep and he can sedate her.

Now, I'm willing to bet that any female reader who just considered the possibility of a man hiding under their bed and waiting to pounce just freaked out. That's the natural, and probably correct, reaction to the premise.  Director Jaume Balaguero - who knows a bit about apartment based horror after co-directing the first two [REC] films - doesn't waste any time setting up Cesar's role as aggressor, and the first act of the film does more than enough to make us uncomfortable with the man. 

The thing about Sleep Tight - the thing that I think is truly amazing - is that it's not that easy to really hate Cesar. I feel awful saying that - I don't support stalking and raping, obviously - but Balaguero focuses almost all of the film's attention on Cesar, and the obsessed man is never painted as a one-note psychopath.  Many films of this sort add scenes that are entirely there to make us think the perpetrator is a total freak, but Sleep Tight takes Cesar's side in the story more often than you'd expect.  I couldn't help feeling like there were moments when Cesar was more like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief than Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and I feel kind of crazy admitting that.

I won't say that I was rooting for the creeper, nor will I suggest that you should. But the real treat of Sleep Tight is that it doesn't settle for the simple approach to this story.  Cesar is a troubled man, not a representation of evil.  Clara isn't built up as the representation of everything that's good, either.  We have plenty of reasons to know that Cesar is a bad guy and Clara is a victim - the most obvious of which is common sense - but Balaguero knows how to create drama in any situation. I am still kind of shocked that I found myself worried about how Cesar would escape being found out in so many situations, but the film is so engaging that I just couldn't help it.

Sleep Tight will certainly go down as one of the most impressive and memorable horror films of recent years for me. It's got a truly Hitchcockian tone, a marvelous lead performance, and enough creepy moments to make most films of its type jealous.  Balaguero will be returning to the [REC] series soon to bring more hyperactive horror to us all, but Sleep Tight should put genre fans on notice that this is a filmmaker who can control a film in many different ways.  I've been thinking about it for days, and can't recommend it enough.

(P.S. - Why is everyone in Spain listening to music from America? Only thing that confused me about this flick.)

February 9, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #162 - Leviathan

Leviathan is a total rip off. I will get that out of the way now, because I've already made peace with it.  This is Alien, but underwater and mixed with a dose of The Thing. That's it. It's not a deep (well, it is underwater, but I meant the other kind of deep) movie, not a particularly well made movie, and arguably not even a good movie. But I still love it.
Don't mistake that for me saying this movie is "so bad it's good", because anyone who knows me knows I don't have the bone that thinks that about horror movies in my body. Leviathan is popcorn sci-fi/horror, and it's basically the movie Alien would have been if everyone on set was cracking back beers and laughing and having a good time while just doing their thing. That's not a crack on Alien either, because that thing is a masterpiece of tension in cinema, it's just a commendation regarding what Leviathan has to offer.
So why is Leviathan so appealing to me? For starters, it has what I consider to be an all-star cast. No, these aren't the names that headline box office blockbusters, but the cast seems to be packed by folks who have consistently made great genre flicks better.  Peter "Robocop" Weller takes the lead as the captain of this undersea mining crew (reuniting with director George P. Cosmatos, who directed him in the fantastic Of Unknown Origin), and he's joined by stars of many of the 1980s' most memorable films. There's Richard Crenna of the Rambo films (the second of which was also directed by Cosmatos), Ernie Hudson (a bonafide Ghostbuster!), Amanda Pays of TV's The Flash, Daniel Stern (obligatory C.H.U.D. comment), Beverly Hills Cop's Lisa Eilbacher, and Hector Elizondo - who's been in stuff, but for some reason I just know him as Hector Elizondo.  Am I forgetting anyone? Why yes, I am - because we also have that evil wench Meg Foster - from Masters of the Universe and They Live(!) - as the humanized equivalent of Alien's "mother."
It's a relatively small part of the film, but I can't even begin to explain how much the interactions between Weller's worker bee and Foster's queen bee(-otch) make me smile. Foster is one of those performers who is forever on my "I want bad things to happen to them" list after her performance in They Live. I'm not saying she was a bad actress in that film, I'm saying the character she played was so hateable that I inherently hate any other character she plays.  And this character does a good job of earning that hate, while Weller benefits greatly from simply being on the other side of their interactions. And man...well, wait...I have to come back to this later.
As you may have guessed from my comparisons to films like Alien and The Thing, this isn't just a movie about a deep sea mining crew and the ice queen back on land. (By the way, it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to talk about Meg Foster and not use the term "ice queen" at least once. It's the eyes, they earn it.)  The simple version of the plot should look pretty familiar to genre fans - the crew finds a destroyed foreign ship which holds a bit of mystery and an unnatural force that soon is unleashed upon them and forces them to fight for survival. Like I said, it's not original. But the film does manage to have some unique moments of surprise and some fantastically gooey monster sequences (thanks to creature work by the legendary Stan Winston), even if it does seem like a series of "chestbuster" moments.
Most movies would lose a lot of steam by being so derivative, but Leviathan works because the cast is clearly having fun - one particular exchange between Foster and Hudson still makes me howl with laughter - and because Cosmatos keeps the film moving at a brisk pace that blocks our brain from noticing how ridiculous things are in the moment. It all builds to a truly manic finale, a sequence which adds new terrors, kills off a seemingly safe character for no reason, reintroduces an old terror, and promptly ends with one of the most unique moments in genre history. I'm not going to say that it's right, I'm just going to say that the first in person interaction between Foster and Weller's characters makes up for anything else wrong with the movie and gets me pumping my cheese-lovin' fists.  More serious movies wouldn't add the final touch that this film does, and many modern movies wouldn't get away with trying it.  Alas, Leviathan exists on its own terms, and the result is a film that is always entertaining in its own ways.

February 8, 2013

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Gut

(2012, Dir. by Elias.)

The snuff film is back with Gut, a psychological indie thriller that aims to draw us in with a deep focus on death.  It's not entirely successful in this regard, but it does leave an impression as a unique addition to the horror genre.

The film follows a family man, Tom, and his co-worker and friend Dan. The two men live a relatively boring life, working in a boring office and eating lunch in a boring diner and reminiscing about the good old days - which sound like they were boring except for watching horror movies. The thing is that Tom is Mr. Serious Married Man now and has little interest in those olden days, while Tom just wants to hang out and watch horror movies like Return of the Living Dead 3.

Since Tom is embracing the boring, the only way Dan can get his attention is by upping the stakes - which means he starts ordering gonzo horror flicks that seem to consist entirely of stomachs being cut open - and which also seem to look extremely real.  I'm not entirely sure this type of film appeals to me - then again, I have spent plenty of time watching YouTube videos of animals being vaporized by vehicles with friends - but Tom and Dan are soon enamored and trapped in the path of whoever makes these sadistic pieces of torture cinema.

The resulting events lead the characters into madness and violence, which you can bet makes their lives a little less boring. Along the way we learn that neither character is very wholesome - let alone very interesting - and we see their relationships with others quickly fall apart.  There's some commentary about the people who chase violent thrills to be had here, which is probably the best thing to focus on in the film. If you can avoid getting too caught up in the acting (Jason Vail, who plays Tom, is especially wooden) and pacing (plenty of shots seem to hold for far too long) and get caught up in the mysteries of what is going on and why it's having such a dramatic effect on these men, you might not mind checking out Gut.

I'm not sure the whole film works. It's raw, but it's raw in a bad "we're being way too deliberate" way and not a good "we're bucking trends and making our own rules" way. The idea is interesting, and it's one of those stories that could be fleshed out more with more interesting characters and more intrigue. Worst of all, the conclusion is incredibly disappointing, wrapping up with a previously teased confrontation that doesn't answer most of our questions. Part of that problem is on the actors - again, I just couldn't get past the stiff performance by Vail - but it's also a problem that the film gives us so much information and so little conclusion.

Gut has plenty of problems but, as I said in the opening, it at least leaves an impression. The snuff-ish sequences are definitely unsettling, and the sequences that surround them - as we watch the male characters become increasingly enamored in them - provoke a lot of thought. The whole product isn't fantastic, but it at least has moments that show a lot of promise. I'd be fascinated to see what writer/director Elias has up his sleeve in the future, because Gut feels like a starting point for an intelligent horror director's career - if he can get the right people around him.  Gut is worth keeping an eye out for if you're a fan of human horror, but to me it ended up as more of an interesting attempt than a winning success.

For more info on Gut, head on over to the official site or Facebook page.  The film is available for rent on plenty of platforms, details of which you can find at those links.

February 5, 2013

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Nicky

(2012, Dir. by Dom Portalla.)

I first encountered the work of Dom Portalla and Ken Flott, the men behind the short feature Nicky, in the fall of 2010.  Portalla had directed the ambitious low-budget thriller The Darkness Within (which came to me via longtime friend of FMWL Cortez the Killer over at the rockin' Planet of Terror), which featured a key side performance by the attention grabbing Flott.  It was a good little film that piqued my interest in the folks at Door Eleven Productions, and that interest has thankfully led me to a pretty fantastic short film today.

As a bit of an obsessive nerd, I remember a lot of weird things that I hear on the internet. Back when I was checking out that flick, I remember a tweet or interview or podcast or something featuring Portalla where he was talking about some kind of difficulty with the film's story and was resigned to admit something like "Thankfully, we had Flott."  I remember being taken aback by the frankness of the director, who seemed unwavering in his confidence that this man was a one-of-a-kind talent.  Seeing what they've done now, it's easy for me to understand why.

Which brings us to Nicky, which is directed by Portalla, based on a short story by Flott, and co-written by the duo.  Look at the poster and you will literally see three lines of credits that feature only these two names, plus Flott as the top billed member of the cast.This is by no means a two man show entirely - the 30 minute short has more characters and settings than you'd expect based on its length - but it is a showcase for Flott, who moves through the film and commands our attention at every turn.

The story follows Flott as a nameless man who is searching for his little brother, Nicky, who vanished years ago without a trace.  We learn a lot about the man through an inner monologue that plays as narration - not to mention his brief conversations with his unconventional best friend - and it's not hard to see where the plot is going as we watch this man move through his life. But, as he did in The Darkness Within, Flott demands our attention and makes the character fascinating.

His journey goes to dark places, which makes Nicky a trip down an unsettling rabbit hole. There's violence and there's foul language and there's even the obvious statement about human trafficking, but there are also some truly unsettling moments that go beyond the expected. The appearances of young Charles Everett Tacker as the title character - usually accompanied by a beautiful score by Danielle Samson - add an air of mystery to the film and push us to that great spot where we're not quite sure what to believe. The end result of these scenes will surely be some conversation about what happened or didn't happen, what was "real" or "not real".

Nicky is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It's put together well by Portalla, well acted by Flott and company, and - most importantly - unique and engaging.  It left me wanting more - it's easy to see this story blown up to feature status with all the questions that remain and the characters that are being established - but it also left me satisfied with what it is. The Darkness Within seemed like a fun diversion, the kind of flick a bunch of talented friends make when they're just seeing what they can do.  Nicky seems like the next step in the evolution of Portalla and company as filmmakers, and I'm willing to guess that anyone who meets Nicky won't soon forget it.

For more information on Nicky and Door Eleven Productions, make sure to head over to their official site or hit the film up on Facebook. And, of course, check out the trailer below.

February 1, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #161 - The Driver

There are about two things in the world cooler than a '70s car chase movie. I'm not sure what those two things are, but there can't be more than two of them.  Among the coolest of those cool things is an early effort from Walter Hill - the man behind The Warriors, Streets of Fire, and plenty of other totally tubular flicks that I love - known simply as The Driver.  This thing is somewhere between Hitchcock and Fast and the Furious on the continuum of action cinema, working on one hand as a twisty high concept thriller and on the other as a showcase for car stunts and high-speed pursuits.  Most interestingly, at least to me, is that it's also a film with no names.
Ryan O'Neal stars as the title character, which is exactly how his character is credited.  He plays that brand of anti-hero/criminal who doesn't hurt good people that we've seen plenty of times in these kind of movies - the most obvious comparison for most modern viewers is to that flick Drive with Ryan Gosling - a guy who also doesn't ask for details and doesn't fall for a trap easily. He's more of a construct than a character, like the cowboy heroes of pulp westerns gone by, because he operates by a set of principles in everything he does.
The film is meticulous as it reminds us of the character's nameless purity, never stooping to self-referential lows like many modern action flicks do.  You know how a Jason Statham character likes to spout off pre-rehearsed quips about his rules and what he never does? That's not The Driver's game.  Sure, the idea branches off of what Hill's script established here (though this is in no way the first film to pull the detached control monger as hero card), but The Driver is notable because it doesn't allow the lead to preach his code of ethics to the viewer.  O'Neal was apparently a big deal in the '70s, but I wasn't there and I don't really "get" his appeal as an actor.  I'm tempted to say that the actor can be one of the film's biggest flaws during the moments that might suggest character development and require him to speak or emote, but at the same time the actor's skill for monotone and ability to hold a vapid expression while the character is in the middle of high risk situations is one of the film's greatest strengths. You could assume that the casting decision was made for this benefit, and that makes it feel like a slightly genius move by Hill and company.
While O'Neal's driver is kept to few words and fewer emotions, the film draws us in completely with the always enjoyable Bruce Dern as The Detective, the primary adversary to the driver.  While dialogue is very limited for our criminal - in fact, a fantastic opening sequence runs over 15 minutes before he speaks - Dern's work as the cop is quite the opposite.  He spouts out his knowledge - mostly from those kind of assumptions that cops always seem to get right in these movies - about the driver often, most effectively when the characters meet.  Dern has always had that kind of sly angst mixed with his everyday appearance, and hearing him tell the driver things like "sad songs ain't sellin' this year" is more than enough to advance their feud through the film. Dern can do pissed-off but in control as well as anyone can, and it's safe to say that the film's conflict would go nowhere without his wonderful performance.
Of course, there always needs to be a girl in these situations, and Hill manages to put two of the most attention grabbing female performers of the era into the mix here.  The stunning Isabelle Adjani, with her dark hair and eyes the size of Kansas, is what the credits refer to as The Player, while Ronee Blakely - known to most horror fans for her drunkenly fascinating performance in A Nightmare on Elm Street - is The Connection.  Adjani gets plenty of screen time as the kind of yin to the driver's kind of yang, while Blakely's supporting turn is key to the film's final heist and leads to one of the film's most artistic and grabbing moments at the end of her final scene.  These characters seem like they walked right out of a '50s film noir offering, and they team up with the rest of the bit players to give the film a poetic depth that pushes the film above simple car chases and cops-and-robbers cliches. Nothing here is groundbreaking or unique - the fact that all of the characters can be summed up by their role in the plot is not a joke, it's a truth - but there's a good chance the viewer will be impressed with how well the parts of the puzzle all fit together.
The Driver is one of Hill's most abstract and cinematic works, the kind of straightforward, no frills action film that only could have existed in the 1970s.  It would make a fantastic double bill with John Carpenter's second film - the gang war epic Assault on Precinct 13, because both films seem like a case of a director showing off how much he can do with the simplest of ideas.  Hill would rise to greater commercial success in the following years - The Warriors opened a year later, and he soon was behind the camera for bigger projects - but The Driver remains as a cool piece of the '70s that's worth revisiting. In cinema, less is often more, and The Driver reminds us of how true that statement can be.