No Man Is A Shuttered Island

I’m not a Martin Scorcese fan. Normally, I attribute this to the subject matter he deals with. I’m not into the gangsters or the dumbass, abusive boxers, and that tends to overwhelm my opinion of his technical prowess, which is considerable.

I did rather like The Departed, so I thought maybe I’d enjoy his latest work, the psychological thriller Shutter Island, even though—well, it’s pretty obvious from the trailer how the whole movie is going to play out.
And it does. The opening scene actually tips the whole thing off. The ending 30 seconds could’ve been out of any of the movies from the After Dark Horror Festival, which pissed The Boy off, but he rather liked it, and has been inclined to appreciate it more over time.
The Old Man also found it pretty predictable but enjoyed it more than I did.
Because, you know, I’m just not a Scorcese guy. Never really engaged. Found myself thinking, “Well, that was kind of interesting” a couple of times. But it couldn’t really distract me from the obviousness of the whole thing.
Good acting. Dicaprio does okay. The Old Man thought he was too young for the part. But then, he’s old. I don’t think he’s processed that DiCaprio is in his mid-30s.
Mark Ruffalo was good. The acting is generally good and the atmosphere great, as you might expect. But, look, the story is “Federal Marshall goes to asylum/prison to investigate mysterious missing patient.” So, this only plays out one of..well, one ways. Just once, I’d like it to turn out that…
Well, no spoilers, here.
I kept hoping. I kept hoping for the non-twisty ending. And as The Boy and I have often observed of late, the non-twisty is the more surprising these days. It would’ve surprised the crap out of me.
There was a little, mini-twist past the big twist I thought might turn out in an unexpected way, but no dice. That was the part that pissed The Boy off. (Though, as I said, he’s liked it more upon reflection.)
So, you know, I can’t really complain. It was exactly what I expected. Meh.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Final Thoughts

Instead of doing the eight movies in three days, we did the movies in five, and I don’t actually think that made much of a difference. You have to wonder, particularly around the fourth or fifth movie (usually toward the end of day 2) whether or not fatigue is weighing on your judgment.

But Unearthed was the first movie of the second fest, and also one of the hardest to sit through. Meanwhile, Autopsy was the sixth movie we saw last year, and one of the most fun. So, I’m inclined to think that I’m really responding to the movies, and not sleepiness. Truly, Lake Mungo is positively soothing.
If there was a theme this time, I’d say it was “man’s inhumanity to man”. Of course, that’s not a big surprise for horror flicks in general, but it really did seem to be a strong undercurrent. There were no monsters to speak of, except for the Zombies of Mass Destruction—where the theme was very strongly man’s inhumanity to man—and the putative demon of The Graves.
The rest was ghosts and people behaving badly, or both. Which, again, is not a big surprise for horror movies, but the kind of far out element of a Gravedancers or Deaths of Ian Stone was completely missing.
The standouts were Zombies of Mass Destruction and Dread for being the ones that really grabbed you, while The Graves stood out as being remarkably bad, sadly. (A sequel is already planned; maybe it will be better.) Lake Mungo stood out as being just not horror. Kill Theory was a pleasant surprise.
Overall, the highs were not as high and the lows not as low. Dread was probably the movie that hung together the best.
Most of the movies did not screw up the ending, which was a pleasant change over last year. There was also a distinct absence of all-over scuzziness. In other words, a lot of horror movies get their twist by, or operate on the basis of, everyone in the whole world being a creep, a sadist or otherwise evil. I mean, The Final, Dread and Kill Theory were basically about human nature under stressful circumstances, to say the least, and all three took the viewpoint that people weren’t, basically, evil.
The strongest part of The Grave was the sorroral relationship of the Graves sisters, to where I would give the sequel a try.
I expressed my doubt last year as to whether there could be another Horror Fest after the poor attendance, and the number of venues drastically shrunk this year without, from what I could tell, any increase in the attendance. The larger audiences seemed to be actual members of the cast and crew.
It was kind of neat seeing the cast and crew but as I said, that also makes it a little more awkward when the movie is bad.
Overall, we had fun and will be back next year, if there is one, and it’s not even further away.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Lake Mungo

Way back in 2006, when the very first Horror Fest was, and they had some advertising budget, the After Dark folks tried the angle of “horror movies TOO INTENSE for regular release”. This was two years after Saw had been released to general popularity, however, and none of the movies came anywhere near that level of intensity (to say nothing of gore).

They’ve dropped that now, and good thing, since Lake Mungo—the last of the eight movies for us—isn’t, in fact, a horror movie.
It’s a mystery. It’s a ghost story. It’s a travelogue for Victoria, Australia. But mostly, it feels like a “documentary” on the SyFy channel, without the cheesy narrative. (Actually, the style is very much like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, so if he decides to make one of those again, haunting would be a great topic.)
It’s the documentary aspect that guarantees a complete absence of any sort of real visceral shocks or thrills. This isn’t Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity style of “hey, we found the videotapes”; this is characters being interviewed after the fact. You know right off the bat none of them died or sprouted tentacles or whatever.
That said, this is a fairly well crafted story of the Palmer family, who loses their daughter while swimming at the lake. (Not the titular Lake Mungo, however.) Then it alternately looks like they were being haunted, and then not, and then haunted, and then maybe just subject to a less supernatural (but creepier!) kind of harrassment, as they try to make sense out of the whole thing.
Along the way we learn a surprising detail or two about the missing Alice and her brother Matthew, and then the mysterious secret of what happened to Alice at summer camp the season before that changed her. (That camp was the titular Lake Mungo.)
The truth will SHOCK you.
Nah, not really. It might give you a little frisson, if I may abuse that word. It won’t make a lot of sense. And, on reflection, the big reveal sort of reminds me of The Reeds, where I didn’t much care for it either.
This one has a curious message: If you ignore ghosts, they’ll go away. I suppose, strictly speaking, that’s true. Barring a violent poltergeist like The Entity, you can just ignore anything incorporeal by definition.
But it’s not real exciting. I will concede that the time-lapse photography of Victoria is absolutely breathtaking, though it set up a particularly slow, almost soporific, rhythm. (At one point The Boy thought I had fallen asleep. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t, but I was sitting back with my eyes half-closed.)
The stinger is kind of interesting (and runs through the first part of the final credits), though still, if you dare call it a horror movie, then it’s is a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies. Or being scared much. (Looking at you, Darcy!)
Noteworthy is Talia Zucker, who plays Alice, the missing girl. She never appears in the movie, except on “archival footage”, you might call it, and she has no dialogue, I don’t think. But she (or perhaps more accurately, the director) manages to create a presence.
I was glad we saw it last. It was so low-key and mild that it would have put me to sleep for the movies that came after it. But it sure ended the festival on a quiet note.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Final

Another first time outing for the revenge story The Final, though director Joey Stewart has a substantial assistant director credits. Writer Jason Kabolati has a few credits, too. And the cast is fairly experienced, too. I mention this for no reason in particular.

The Final is the story of two sets of clichés at odds with each other. Clichés that would’ve made John Hughes blush. On the one side you have the jocks and cheerleaders. On the other, the outcasts. The former, naturally, torment the latter. And then, the icing on the cliché cake: The cool kid (the only black kid in the school, natch) who bridges the two worlds.
When I say cliché, I’m not talking mild similarities, either, to school archetypes. The “popular” kids are so incredibly cruel to the geeks, and in such typical ways, while the geeks themselves are just a little more varied, that there’s virtually no reason to add any characterization. You’re not surprised that the alpha jock is cheating on his girlfriend, and you could probably guess what class the banjo player is when he plays D&D. (Druid.)
Is this bad? Well, not necessarily. It’s easy to instantly hate the villains, which is always good considering the protagonists’ are going to do terrible things to them. The protags are blandly inoffensive at worst, really—they actually don’t do anything overtly geeky, or anything at all, really. It’s a very one-sided story.
The villains are so villainous, that when the outcasts trick them, drug them and capture them, you’re not really feeling sorry for them. You don’t feel all that sympathetic for the outcasts either, though, curiously. The whole thing doesn’t resonate much.
Actually, this also isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the outcasts do some pretty horrible things. Acids, cattle guns, gun guns, traps, etc. If you really felt deeply for anyone, it would be an awful experience. As a morality play acted out by symbols, it’s much more bearable.
Some of the effects are weirdly bloodless. They’re cuttin’ off fingers (e.g.) right and left, but not much blood comes out.
Oh, yeah. There’s a crazed Vietnam vet, too. He looked a little young to me, but I guess the last troops came out in 1973, so I guess he was plausible. (He didn’t look much older than I, but I look old.) Anyway, seems like those guys are getting long in the tooth to keep being the go-to-troops for crazy.
Anyway, the whole thing sort of lopes along. There were some moments where the director came very close to giving us some great, Hitchcockian suspense, but those were safely bypassed without much excitement. The story elements are all there but not really fully engaged. So, there’s close calls and betrayals and surprises but none of it really grabs you.
Again, not necessarily a bad thing.
Then it’s over. The characters, the audience, and I guess the filmmakers, have had enough.
They didn’t screw up the ending. I think there was a real attempt to make it plausible. (There were some rumors about being based on a true story. Don’t believe it. The school torment plausibly was; the violent retribution? Not so much.)
I’m dunno. The whole thing felt a little conflicted. Like it didn’t want to be there. On the one hand, there’s no torture porn aspect, i.e., you’re not expected to enjoy it. (Or if that was intended, it wasn’t successful.) On the other hand, the violence feels understated—not really as horrible and visceral as it would really be.
It comes off kind of paper thin, such that the stinger kind of makes you go, “Oh. I get it,” without really feeling anything.
The Boy kind of liked it, but it didn’t knock our socks off.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Reeds

A group of six young adults rent a boat for a weekend to go out in the marshes. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, your boat could be trashed and all the other boats be out for the weekend.
But wait! The old boat rental guy has an old boat he doesn’t rent out much but will let you have if you want. Great. Weekend saved. Nothing else could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, your boat could be covered with recalcitrant teenagers. Including the one that ran out in front of your car on the way in.
But wait! You offer them some beers and they go away. So, now you’re good to go. Nothing else could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, you could get lost. There’s nothing out there as far as the eye can see and the reeds make a kind of maze. And of course your cell phones don’t work. And there’s all this junk at the bottom of the marsh that might just end up wrecking your boat.
But that’s gotta be it, right? It’s not like there’s anything in the reeds to worry about. Except maybe those kids who seem to be able to show up wherever you go ahead of you, and without needing any cars or boats or fancy things like that.
And of course, some of your friends (or you) could end up dead.
So, basically, this is a typical vacation movie.
Seriously, this is a reasonably well-executed movie that throws in a lot of miscues to create some mystery and horror around what’s basically a straight ghost story.
The problem with a movie like this is that it throws all these cues out about what the movie’s about, and doesn’t follow through with them. Like, you might think that the boat was significant, since the movie makes a point of that boat being the only one available. Like, if the only place to spend the night is the creepy motel outside the city limits, you expect that creepy motel to factor into things.
But the boat never does. And there’s nothing in the reeds, at least nothing like the camerawork implies. In the end, it’s a ghost story. There’s a twist with the lead, but I saw it coming, well, almost immediately.
In the end, I was pretty satisfied, though the multiple distractions bored me a bit.
And then, they screwed it up in the last 2 seconds again. The movie’s end is pretty good, but the stinger throws the whole damn thing into question, makes no freakin’ sense, and can’t even be described as a plausible lead-in for a sequel.
Pointless. Pissed us off, too. Otherwise, The Boy rather liked it.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Dread

If you wanted to put a label on what it is I dislike about “Usher” movies like Skjult, you could use “Dread” pretty accurately. Dread, of course, is not wanting to confront something, generally out of fear. For me, dread quickly turns to boredom and sleepiness. (Just get it out of the way already!)

Fortunately, Dread, the movie, is nothing like that. Clive Barker is attached (author of the original story and producer) which says to me that a) there’s gonna be some kinky sex, and; b) the ending’s gonna be dark.
Dread is the story of young Stephen (Jackson Rathbone of the Twilight series) who falls under the sway of the moody, angry Quaid (Shaun Evans, evoking a kind of young Dennis Leary) and agrees to elicit his friend Abby’s help in collecting people’s stories of—you guessed it—dread.
Rounding out the core cast is Hanne Steen as Cheryl, a girl who works in the used bookstore with Stephen, and who has a birthmark that covers half her face and body.
I may have Abby and Cheryl mixed up, in terms of their roles. I actually wondered for a second if they were the same actress, and if this were some sort of surreal turn, but it was just a matter of having cast two dark-haired, doe-eyed 5’4"/5’5" actresses.
Most of the initial stories are trivial and Quaid gets more and more dissatisfied with their “progress”, until Abby shares a personal story of abuse. We’ve already learned that Stephen lost an older brother to a car accident, but Quaid trumps them all: He saw his mother and father murdered with an axe.
One of the interviewees, a young man who experienced years of deafness after a trauma, pinpoints the dread: After surviving suffering, you have this dread that you will suffer it again. As bad as the others have it, when your dread is focused on an axe murderer coming back to get you, that trumps most other fears.
This movie really underscored a probably unconscious theme in this year’s selections: Man’s inhumanity to Man. There’s not a monster movie in the lot.
Anyway, the first half of the movie builds up the tension, as Stephen and Abby hook up and Quaid ends up hooking up with Cheryl, in what at least initially seems almost like an act of kindness.
I actually had a little problem with this storyline: Hanne Steene (I think it’s her) is really, really cute. A bit bubbly. The birthmark actually looks, well, sexy. Kind of like a superhero mask. (The movie needed a bit more of showing her shyness.) Also, while Stephen is interested in Abby, that seems to start at the beginning of the movie, and doesn’t explain why he’s not all over Cheryl, who’s interested. (The implication is almost that it’s her birthmark, which just strikes me as dumb.)
That aside, the disintegration of the characters, particularly Quaid, who becomes obsessed with taking things to “the next level” is fascinating—and (typically of Barker) increasingly sadistic.
Philosophically, the story’s actually a little weak and limited in its understanding of terror. Quaid’s theory is that, in a tragedy, the terror comes from thinking “that could happen to me”. I don’t really buy that.
That aside, this is a low-key psychological horror film that pays off in a fairly big way, though a way that is really, really creepy and gross.
Another theme of the festival: the director Anthony DiBlasi is a first-timer, and shows a lot of promise. Overall, we both liked this one, and were especially pleased that they didn’t screw it up.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Hidden (Skjult)

We started our third day of the Horror Fest with the Norwegian flick, Hidden. One of my idiosyncratic movie genre labels is “Usher” (after Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher”, not the hippity-hoppity guy). In an “Usher” movie, it is clear that the main character(s) is(are) doomed from the opening scene from events that have occurred in the past. Whatever struggles seem to grant any kind of light or hope of escape are merely teases; there is, in fact, no plot movement whatsoever because the plot happened before scene 1.

In the very first ADHF, their big movie was The Abandoned, which epitomizes the genre, down to the main character fighting with her family in the ancestral manse. Blair Witch has a little of that feel. Jacob’s Ladder sort of fits, too, and 1408 has much of the feel, but the key emotion is an overwhelming despair. A sort of nihilism.
I generally hate those kinds of movies. I actually skipped the last three movies of ADHF 1 because I couldn’t take any more after The Abandoned. They feel like cheats to me, like a denial of free will.
So, when the main character of Skjult comes home to the house he’s inherited from his recently deceased evil mom, I despaired. But then he had two big cans of gas, and I was happy. But then the local sheriff (a girl who kind of likes him) stops him, and I despaired again.
That’s sort of how these movies work. You think there’s an out but there’s not.
Another thing these movies like to do is present you with all these riddles. And then not resolve them in any comprehensible way. Honestly, it makes me pass out, and I had a hard time staying awake for the film, which was subtitled.
I should point out that The Boy rather liked it, except for the last two seconds, which he decided to pretend did not occur.
Basically, the movie opens at night with a young boy taking a pee by the side of the road as his parents wait in the car. Out in the (gorgeously shot) forest, a hand emerges from the ground, then a whole boy, half-naked, of a similar age as the micturating one. Half-naked boy runs in wild escape, out into the road, when a truck swerves to miss him and runs into the car containing the other boy’s parents. (Bet he wishes he’d gone at the rest stop like they asked him to then!)
Nineteen years later, our hero K.K. returns to make sure his mom is really dead. It’s somewhat confusing but, it turns out K.K. is half-naked wild boy. Beyond that, things get a little murky. K.K. apparently spent some time in foster homes. Pee Boy, on the other hand, fleeing the accident, died the night of the car crash when he plunged over the side of a cliff, into a (gorgeously shot) waterfall.
Or did he?
Basically, K.K. is haunted by the notion that Pee Boy—er, Peter, is the character’s name—didn’t actually die, but was instead captured by his mother and subsequently abused, just as she abused K.K.
The other problem with this sort of movie is that the main character (and what he experiences) is unreliable and/or the director bends reality to cheat however is needed to keep things bleak. (Blair Witch’s walking in circles thing for example.) So, it’s very hard to tell whether a character is crazy or just more aware.
We never do learn why everyone hates K.K. We don’t know if the girl at the hotel is real, or even if the hotel itself is real. And if it is, why is the room number significant, or is it not that the number itself is significant, but just our cue that he’s not really in said hotel?
Meh. These movies are filled with stuff like that. But while it can make you try to puzzle out the plot, it doesn’t make the process palatable.
But again, I’m not your go-to guy for reviews of stuff like this since, as I point out, I don’t like this whole genre. The Boy was unfazed and thought it original and fresh (except for the last two seconds). So. There you are.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Zombies Of Mass Destruction

This is another movie where the cast and crew were around. In fact, we kept seeing the director hanging around in the lobby while we killed time between movies. In a lot of ways, this movie is the antithesis of The Graves. The direction and editing is fantastic: It’s smart, funny, campy, sharp and pops.

And at the end, I began to think if I stayed for director Kevin Hamedani’s Q&A, I’d end up smacking him in the face.
But let’s talk about the good: This is the story of Frida Abbas (Janette Armand), a Persian who’s come back to her small northwestern hometown of Port Gamble, just in time for a zombie outbreak. Frida’s dropped out of Princeton, much to the disappointment of her traditional father (played wonderfully by, I’m guessing, the director’s actual father). No less disappointing is her taste in boyfriends (Ryan Barret as Derek, who composes a song largely composed of repeating “Frida” over-and-over again).
Meanwhile, closeted homosexual Tom (Doug Fahl) is back from New York with boyfriend Lance (Cooper Hopkins), preparing to come out to his mom. And hippie Cheryl (Cornelia Moore) is running to oust Mayor Burton (James Mesher), who is busy commiserating with the desultory Reverend Haggis (Bill Johns) about how things have gone to Hell.
Oh, yeah, and there are zombies, but nobody seems to notice. (Very Shaun of the Dead.)
As I said, the script pops. Lots of jokes and cute plot points, so that when the first zombie attack occurs, you are genuinely shocked. (This movie actually shocks pretty well, though it never achieves the tension you get from other zombie comedy classics, like Shaun or Return of the Living Dead.) The director’s hand is as sure in the action sequences as in the character building.
So, about the slapping?
Well, first of all, this movie is pretty left. Not entirely left and, in fact, some of the best parts are the ones where the political tilt is dropped for a good joke. But it starts with the Persian girl being accosted by a redneck family. The wife apologizes for the war in Iraq and says they always vote Democrat. The husband demurs. (“I don’t vote for pussies!”) And, of course, they don’t know the difference between Iraqi and Iranian.
Eh. It’s fine. It’s funny enough, at first. But at a later point, the redneck dad decides he’s going to torture Frida, and the torture theme is re-introduced in the church later on, in reference to the gay couple. The movie really breaks down at these points, particularly the later scenes in the church. The third act church scenes, while funny, completely rob the movie of any momentum.
But there was something else that began to bug me, early on, and more and more as the movie progressed. The initial horror movie scene—the one I talked about in reference to The Graves, where the movie ceases to be one kind of movie and clearly becomes a horror flick—is shocking and also (intentionally) kind of funny, because it’s so far over the top.
And there are other similarly over the top gore scenes, including a pan-by of a body which is sending up two small steady streams of blood like a fountain, zombies eating their own body parts, and so on. Clearly meant as campy fun.
But there’s a cruelty there, too. The director seems to relish some of the really painful parts, to the point that borders on torture porn. Too, there are scenes of our Persian and gay characters hacking up zombies that smack of revenge fantasy. (Note that Hamedani is a native of a small Washington town which both makes one think he’s relating real experiences and also maybe indulging a bit.) I realized halfway on that the only smart and really likable characters were the ones from out of town, with a nod to Frida’s dad, who gets more sympathy than any other character.
And there’s a scene at the end with a fence that commemorates the attacks in pictures on letters to the dead which has some funny aspects to it on the one hand, but on the other seems like a tasteless comparison to 9/11.
I think that was ultimately why I wanted to slap the Director: The guy is clearly talented, extraordinarily so. He used a crew of largely inexperienced actors and crew and put together a movie that largely succeeds, and beyond expectations. But even allowing for the fact that the movie’s supposed to be campy and satirical, and therefore not entirely warm, I felt like I could easily see this talent being wasted from a lack of empathy to other viewpoints.
Nonetheless, this is probably the best of show.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Graves

If you’re a regular reader, then you’ve probably grasped that I don’t care particularly for trashing movies. There are a lot of reasons for that. It is fun to make fun of movies, of course, and I can certainly rail with the best of them about things I don’t like.

But when you get down to it, making a movie is an accomplishment, involving at least dozens of people and often hundreds. And even bad movies bring joy (which is why I’d usually prefer to see an awful movie than just a mediocre one) and a certain sense of amazement.
And if I don’t like it in general, you can imagine how it is when the cast and crew is in the audience. You don’t want to—well, I don’t want to, I can’t speak for your character—say, “Hey, nice to meet you. You suck.”
Which brings us to The Graves. This is kind of a cute title since the movie isn’t graveyard based but based on the The Graves sisters, Abby and Megan. Megan is on her way to New York City, which will separate the two for the first time. For reasons that elude me, this leads to the world’s shortest road trip, where they end up in Skull City.
The director (Brian Pulido) came up before the movie and thanked everyone, his wife, Francisca, was a co-producer, and the other producers, the Ronalds Brothers were there. (The movie has, like, six executive producers, whose contribution was just money, I believe.) And he thanked the cast for doing a great job, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s a terrible movie. And most of that can be laid at the director’s feet, with most of the rest laid at Dean Matthew Reynolds’ feet, as he doubled as the film’s editor.
The Boy said the acting was terrible. I disagreed. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, in low budget movies, editing is the big killer. Think for a moment of a daytime soap. There are these long pauses in between the lines, and especially on fade outs. It makes everything seem stilted.
I’ve seen great actors reduced to looking foolish by bad editing. Or, say, bad directorial choices. (See Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons. Or don’t. You’ll be glad you didn’t.) So, for the most part, I’d say it wasn’t bad acting, but bad editing and bad choices.
The great Tony Todd, who has provided menace for dozens of movies and TV shows, is ridiculously over the top. There’s another guy who talks in the same overblown baptist preacher cadence who is also absurd. But someone told them to play it that way (Brian).
To recap the plot, Megan (played by Maelstrom PB-girl Clare Grant) and Abby (the teeny Jillian Murphy) are splitting up, in a kind of Cloverfield-party sequence shot off-and-on on camcorder, and then off on the road to Skull City (also shot off-and-on in handicam style), where they’re terrorized by some murderous folk.
This is more-or-less a remake of the first part of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, down to where every single person in the audience was unsurprised by the “twist”. There’s a supernatural Children of the Corn angle, as the demon of the mine is shown swallowing some souls in dodgy CGI.
When they escape the the first peril, and you’re thinking “Well, maybe this movie will go for being short…” there’s a whole cultist angle. This is set up in the beginning, so it’s not a surprise, but it’s totally a shift in movie tone and feels very slapped on. As if there weren’t enough pages in the script so they ended the one movie and started a new one.
It just doesn’t hang together. A lot of things don’t really follow one-to-the-next. The camcorder thing is completely dropped. (Why have it at all?) The thing in the mine seems to have no autonomy and yet no clearly defined purpose for the townspeople. And on and on. Kill Theory was just as clichéd, but hung together far more successfully and interestingly.
Worse, the director misdirects. There aren’t really any great shots in the movie; there’s one pretty good one where the girls are in the archetypal car-that-won’t-start and you can sort of make out the maniac-of-the-moment coming up. That was effectively subtle.
But otherwise, the movie feels mis-cued. With most horror movies, there’s a moment where the film transitions from ordinary story to horror story. (Often these movies start with some horror, but then resets to a road trip or buddy flick, or whatever.) Usually when the characters first become aware that they’re in a horror movie, by witnessing a murder or other horrific act.
This movie transitions as the girls are walking through a house in the ghost town, and Megan suddenly pins herself up against the wall and tells Abby there’s a murder going on outside. Abby thinks she’s putting her on. I thought she was putting her on. There was no music—a shame, as the music used in the opening scene was a nice melange of clichés put together effectively—and when the body shows up, it’s outside a window, occupying maybe 15% of the screen.
It’s not impossible to pull that off. Well, strike that, it might be. This is your first big shock! Contrast with Kill Theory, where they throw the freakin’ body through the freakin’ window. Clichéd? Sure! But so is the guy fighting for his life slamming up against the window.
It’s all been done; the director’s job is to do it well. And sell it.
And it happens a lot in this movie that the director’s just not there in any kind of close action sequence. Probably half-a-dozen times, I turned to The Boy to ask him what had happened. (He mostly didn’t know either.) At one point, for example, Abby tackles a baddie, and they both drop off the bottom of the screen.
Now, things going out of frame is a common low-budget tactic, and a perfectly valid one. But Abby looks like she weighs less than a hundred pounds and we don’t see what happens to the baddie for several minutes (apparently he says something like “Ow! My face!” but I didn’t hear that) and even having seen it, it’s hard to figure exactly how it happened.
But this happened a lot, like the director wasn’t really comfortable with action shots.
Another bad choice was—well, okay, the smell from the mine is supposed to drive the girls crazy at two points in the movie, and that was just silly. And a little bit (unintentionally) sexy. I mean, they’re snarling and snapping, but it’s not clear what’s keeping them from actually biting. I’m all for restraint when using effects, but with no help at all, the two girls just looked kinda hot. Heh.
Then, approaching the film’s climax, there was a bunch of exposition which had the unfortunate effect of slowing everything down while failing to illuminate anything. It was all kinda “Duh”.
Yeah, I mostly blame the director here. On the plus side, it’s his first feature and while I think nobody should ever make some of these mistakes, a lot may simply be knowing what to emphasize given severe budgetary constraints.
And, as bad as it is, I’d still rank it above most of last year’s movies, on the strength of the Megan/Abby relationship. Last years’ movies were inept in a variety of ways but on top of that features casts of dismal representations of humanity. While Grant and Murphy are among the actors who end up looking silly from time to time, they had good chemistry and could do well with a little more help from Pulido and Ronalds.
This is really apparent when veteran Bill Moseley is on-screen. Moseley (late of HBO’s “Carnivalé”) is great, even when his lines aren’t, and the girls also get better when they’re interacting.
Overall, though, hard to recommend, except for Grant and Murphy fans.
Fun side-note: The movie’s hulking menace of a blacksmith, Shane Smith, sat two rows directly in front of me. He’s about my height and probably weight, too, though he has a wider frame. The rest of the cast was around after, and were all pretty much teeny.
Fun side-note 2: The movie’s casting director was Nina Axelrod, star of Maelstrom house-favorite Motel Hell, among other ‘80s horror goodies. I’ve noticed her (casting) work in the past, too, and it was cool to see her name come up here.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Kill Theory

On the scale of unpromising horror premises, “college kids trapped in house by maniac” has got to be in the top…one. So, when Kill Theory starts with a maniac being released by a doctor and we cut to a bunch of college kids in a van on a way to the Rich Kid’s dad’s lake house, I was not optimistic.

All the clichés are here: You got snotty Rich Kid, all around Good Guy, the Fat Dude, the Hyper Guy, and their girlfriends. You got the Level-Headed girl who loves Good Guy, and the kinky Curvy Girl who’s hooked up with Rich Kid but pines for lost love, Good Guy. Hyper Dude has the Sweet girlfriend. Fat Dude is, of course, alone, but Slutty Stepsister shows up at the lake house.
There is what seems to be an inordinate time spent on characterization in these opening scenes. This also didn’t fill me with hope.
Yet, when the first dead body shows up, not only does the story move in some unexpected ways, a lot of the earlier characterization shows up again as a plot point.
This movie is, sort of, Friday The 13th by way of Saw. You know, in a very real way, the Jigsaw Killer is not far removed from Jason, Freddy or Michael. He’s all-powerful in his anticipation of the characters’ actions, and his ability to plan for them far in advance, and (more importantly for the movie’s purposes) his ability to lock them into a very simple moral dilemma.
The Maniac in this movie is not quite so sophisticated. His traps are simple and secondary.
The main tension is this: Mr. Maniac (Kevin Gage, who could easily do a bunch of sequels to this, a la Tobin Bell) spent three years in an institution because on a mountain climbing expedition, he cut loose three of his friends to save his own skin. (I’m not sure how that’s illegal but play along.)
His exceedingly annoying psychiatrist (working actor Don McManus, whom you recognize without being able to name, and who actually manages to be irritating on a Richard-Dreyfuss-in-What-About-Bob? scale) has taken exception to Mr. Maniac’s insistence that anyone would do the same thing he did, and in his smug, wanna-punch-him-in-the-face way demands that while Mr. Maniac is no longer a threat to society, he does need more therapy.
Mr. Maniac plans to prove his side of the argument by putting the college kids to the following test: If one of them is left alive in the house at dawn, that person goes free. If more than one is left alive, they all die.
The kids are pretty good actors, though I was really confused at first because I thought they were high school kids. But they looked far too old and they acted like college kids. Then, yeah, it was made clearer later on, but, to be honest they’re largely too old for that, too. (It doesn’t matter much, but I did notice, and I’m not the most observant in this area. Theo Rossi, whom I’ve dubbed “Hyper Kid”, is 34! He’s in good shape for a middle-aged man!)
It’s not, I don’t think a huge acting challenge, for the most part. There’s a lot of low-key stuff. Curvy Girl Ryanne Duzich has a relatively tough part, having to be both sexy and vulnerable and in love and desperate, all in turns. (Also, she’s not that curvy but wears what must’ve been a pretty dang uncomfortable bra the whole time.) Fat Kid Daniel Franzese (30 years old, by the way) has to do a lot of whining and cowering, but manages to be sympathetic all the same.
I’d lay the credit for the success of this movie at the feet of writer Kelly C Palmer, who was in the audience. Within some very narrow constraints, she does a good job of avoiding a lot of the horror movie trope traps. And there’s a strong undercurrent about the characters’ basic goodness: They don’t, for the most part, want anything to do with the Maniac’s plan—and willingness to go along comes from some surprising arenas.
The other guy who gets the credit is Chris Moore. Now, this is Moore’s first outing as a director, but if you ever watched “Project Greenlight”, he was the incredibly nice, remarkably professional producer who made sure that the movies actually got made.
Moore handles this movie really well. Most of the directors picked for “Project Greenlight” were sort of flamboyant. Moore handles this confidently without being flashy. You never think, “Oh, that was clever.” The shots tell the story without pulling you out of it. His pacing, along with the humor and twists of the script make this above par.
‘course, we get the old “so far out we can’t get cell phone reception” gag, along with the phone lines being cut, but Something Must Be Done about the phone thing. Still, recommended.

After Dark 4: First Thoughts

I pondered last year how long the After Dark Horrorfest could go on, with so few people in the audience. This year, there are a total of four venues in all of California, and the closest one (by a margin of 50 miles) is the dreaded Beverly Center 13, located in that monstrous mall in downtown Beverly Hills.

Actually, the theater itself is not bad. But having to navigate the streets is not great.
We planned to split the movies up in to four days this year, a plan I think The Boy favored given how bad the movies were last year. But he was in the mood to go Friday, so we went to the 10PM showing of Kill Theory.
About ten people in the whole theater, until some members of the crew came in.
Got a bad feeling about After Dark 5. Good news, though: Kill Theory did not suck.

Paranormal Activity: Return of the Old, Dark House

The Boy and I snuck in a Saturday Matinee in the hopes of seeing Paranormal Activity while avoiding—well, let’s be honest, the public, who can’t really be trusted to shut up and actually watch a movie these days. Particularly, since one of our last horror outings (The Orphan) had taken place in a theater full of rowdy teenagers, we’d hoped an early Saturday show would be mostly empty.

It wasn’t, unfortunately. But the audience was quiet, leading me to suspect that alcohol plays a factor in teen jerkiness, maybe more than the teen part even.

This movie, the brain child of writer/director/former video game programmer Oren Peli is actually nothing more than a classic Old, Dark House story. Which means, seriously, a bad audience will ruin it for you.

This movie has one of the slowest buildups for a horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. Well, for a good horror movie. The movie is absent any gore whatsoever—you’ve seen worse on “Law and Order”. The horrors, very literally, are bumps in the night.

Actually, those are some of the more overt horrors. A couple of others are a door that moves about six inches, and one of the characters just standing there.

You get the idea. It’s all in the telling. Oh! And sleepwalking! I haven’t seen sleepwalking used to be scary since, what, 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie?

The story is that Katie and Micah have been living together with a bit of poltergeist phenomenon. It’s been getting worse and rattling Katie, so she calls in a psychic. In this interview, we come to understand the Katie’s been having this problem most of her life. The psychic decides that it’s not your average restless spirit, but a demon, and he doesn’t do demons. Call the local demonologist.

Against this backdrop, the glib, cocky Micah goes through a number of changes. Katie, of course, believes and is very respectful of her demon while Micah goes from thinking on the one hand that it’s all silly and psychics are worthless, to being excited about the prospect of catching interesting film footage and actually stirring stuff up.

And while this is all hand-held video, for good stretches the camera is mounted, meaning much less of the shakes.

It’s actually got a very real feel to it, much more so than Blair Witch, and if Zombieland is a sort of low budget, the budget for this movie is said to be eleven thousand dollars. Most of the chills are ghost-story type things, such as a door opening slightly or a sheet billowing, but there are some interesting footfalls and a bit of special effects at the ending, too. It’s all lightly done, though.

Adding to it is that Micah and Kate (the actors’ real names) have a very real look to them. Kate is “Hollywood fat” which is to say, not fat at all, but probably fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than they’ll let her be if she’s in anything else. (Remember how skinny Heather Donahue got after “Witch”. Scarier than the movie.)

Anyway, rather realistically and conveniently, her boyfriend tends to leer a bit when he’s got the camera on her. A little less realistically is that she wears bras to bed. (I guess not unheard of, but it reminded me a bit of Megan McCain’s just lying around the house picture.) A couple of other things like that sort of caught my eye. (Like, why don’t they change sides in bed? Well, the camera shots are better that way and it probably wouldn’t make any difference story-wise. Still, that’s what I would’ve done.)

But when you’re picking nits at this level, you’ve got yourself a solid picture.

Couldn’t figure out why it was rated R when it was over. I guess there was some swearing? (I don’t usually notice.) But I’d guess it was more that that’s what the filmmakers wanted. PG-13 would’ve been more than adequate. It had an “R” feel, though.

I like “house” movies; always have. But this is an especially good one.

The Boy was less impressed. You could say we were flipped on this and Zombieland. I liked the slow buildup, he thought it was too slow. Also, Zombieland is more lighthearted, whereas this movie gets more and more serious every passing scene, despite a lot of humor.

Nonetheless, not only were people quiet during this movie, most stayed quiet well after the final scene, not really sure if it was over. Even the people who decided it was over left quietly. Pretty amazing, really.

Movie Review: Zombieland

Using the template established by 28 Days Later, and bouncing off a little Shaun of the Dead, the new movie Zombieland gives us a fun-filled romp across a zombie-filled American West.

What more do you need, really?

Well, if you’re The Boy, a lot more. I had a hard time getting him to see this one. The potential for stupid was huge, and director Fleischer, along with writers Reese and Wernick, don’t have a big dossier. I kind of blanked on Woody Harrelson—whom he actually knows from a bunch of movies at this point—and while I remembered Jesse Eisenberg from Adventureland, I had forgotten that Emma Stone was his love interest in that movie, as well. Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine rounds out the core cast.

But he doesn’t usually go see movies because of the actors anyway.

But I persuaded him and he loved it. It’s a brisk movie, just an hour-and-a-half which is pretty solidly plotted, and mostly pretty light for a post-apocalyptic movie. It dispenses with a number of the genre traditions set up by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to good end. It’s not real scary, despite a few good shocks in the beginning, but it is massively gory.

Possibly the goriest I’ve seen this year. Possibly the goriest last year, too.

The gore is very sincerely done and well-executed. For a relatively low-budget movie, it does a very convincing job of gore-spewing and head-smashing and so on.

If you’re squeamish, in other words, steer clear.

Anyway, the plot basically concerns Eisenberg as an unlikely survivor who crosses path with the more macho Harrelson as they journey to their respective homes. Harrelson’s character likes to call everyone by their home town, so Eisenberg becomes Columbus, while he’s Tallahassee. Stone and Breslin are Witchita and Little Rock, respectively.

Columbus, formerly a shut-in, has managed to survive by compiling a simple list of rules he always follows. Things like strapping on the seatbelt and being extra-cautious of bathrooms—the latter being a virtual zombie movie cliché. These give the movie a nice start, funny and in good contrast with Tallahassee’s more ad hoc style of engagement.

This is mostly dropped in the middle of the movie which may or may not have been a good idea. It resurfaces again toward the end. I have to say, even at ninety minutes, I actually thought the end of act 2 and the beginning of act 3 was kind of a drag.

The movie is really well plotted up to this point. There’s a gag bit in the middle which is hilarious but seems to end the movie’s drive.

Still it all ends well enough, and there were a lot of ending clichés avoided as well. Where Shaun of the Dead ends with an excellent (but very standard) zombie beatdown, this stays true to it’s own feel, which is nice.

I’m being vague about details because a lot of the delight of this movie comes from its originality, and the light character arcs which manage to be pretty good despite being very light.

If you can get past the (over the top) gore, you can have yourself a good time.

Drag Me To Hell (but try not to scratch the floors)

Thirty years ago a bunch of kids went out to the woods and a young director made a balls-out horror movie by hanging from the rafters, attaching to cameras to 2x4s and running with them, and (according to some rumors) attaching cameras to motorbikes and nearly running down actors.

The uneven mess that resulted (Evil Dead) made an impact. It created a genre. Inspired a generation. Accidental camp and genuinely effective moments created a uniquely harrowing experience. I’d say it launched a career, but it was 10 years before Sam Raimi got a shot at a real movie (Darkman).

He remade Evil Dead as the much better Evil Dead II, which substituted the accidental camp and amateurishness of the first with an almost bizarrely acute awareness of how horror and humor overlap, and how you could make an audience laugh, squirm and scream at the same time.

This distinguishes it from the grimly serious style of horror and the wisecracking style. This is the William Castle-style, the James Whale-style, and it’s remarkably refreshing. Raimi may try to gross us out, but there’s no sadism in his film. At the same time, he’s never letting his characters out of the vice: they don’t get to laugh along with us, no matter how absurd the situations. And there are are a lot of absurd situations here.

The funny thing is, Sam Raimi claims to not even like horror movies. (Hence the near complete transformation of the Evil Dead series to action/comedy in Evil Dead 3, Bruce Campbell vs the Army of Darkness.) But there were occasions to think he missed the genre: The stark presentation of A Simple Plan and the horror overtones of The Gift certainly suggested it, but nothing moreso than the use of his Evil Dead camera tricks and stylistic approaches for the surgery scene in the excellent Spiderman 2.

Well, most (but not all) of those tricks are present in Drag Me To Hell. In fact, there’s a seance scene that could have been right out of the original movies, complete with a floating body, and vocal distortions saying a line very close to “I’ll swallow your soul.” (The only thing conspicuously missing is Raimi’s trademark zoom-stop, where the camera zooms in and stops when something makes a big noise.) Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a few new tricks in his repertoire.

Still one thing hasn’t changed in three decades: Nothing is scarier than an old woman with cataracts who vomits goo.

So, what do we have here?

Christine Brown is a girl from down on the farm who’s trying to make her way in the big city, and has made it to bank loan officer. She’s landed rich guy psych professor Clay Dalton and she has a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. (A little too nice, I think, to be realistic. It’s not big, but those places are expensive.) Her big problem is that her boss is considering new-guy suck-up for the position of Assistant Manager, because she’s maybe a little too sweet.

Enter the old gypsy woman. Yeah, you heard me. Next to ancient Indian burial grounds, there’s probably nothing more hack. But it’s okay. This is a carinval ride: The point is not breaking new thematic ground but to scare you with the familiar. (A harder trick if you think about it.)

Anyway, the gypsy is behind on her payments and already has had two extensions. But Christine’s manager leaves it to her: extend again or foreclose. I won’t say what she decides to do here, but I will say she ends up with a curse on her. ‘cause, you know, that’s what the movie is about.

This is a tightly compressed movie where Christine ends up terrorized by an evil spirit (called the Lamia) and she’s got three days to get rid of the curse or end up being dragged to Hell (do not pass go, do not collect $200). Along the way, she gets beaten up, terrorized, betrayed and rebuffed in attempt after attempt to make things right.

She looks for help among the gypsies, with a spiritual reader, and finally with the Lamia’s old nemesis. The climax of the film has the previously mild-mannered Christine pushing herself to the limit to rid herself of this curse.

And then there’s the “twist” ending. The Boy and I were of two minds about it. We both saw it coming. I saw the device they used to set it up, but got distracted by the expertise of the execution. He thought, “Well, this is how they all end,” and so was just disappointed by it when it finally came.

So, we both agreed: Excellent movie, disappointing ending. Again, the execution here is top notch. It’s just the way Raimi chose to end it was just very typical.

Still, hard to complain: Genuinely good horror movies are few and far between. This one was, in turn, scary, funny, clever, involving, suspenseful, squicky and just plain fun.

I’ve heard that Raimi was disappointed with the third Spiderman movie, and has said that he wasn’t given the creative freedom he was given with the first two. And also that that would be his criteria for moving forward. I tend to believe that, and would rather have him make fewer and lower-budget films he has control over rather than lots of big budget films he doesn’t.

Don’t drag me to hell for saying so.

The Haunting In Conneck-ticut

It’s a trope of horror stories that the (typically doomed) protagonists are not happy-go-lucky types with the world at their command. Unhappiness, disease or other disturbance is usually the lot of characters about to be visited by some supernatural evil.

Which, you know, kind of sucks for them, quite apart from all the horror they’re about to go through.

There’s a difficult line to tread here. At it’s best, horror is often (but far from always) an analysis of real life problems, but for movie horror in particular, you don’t necessarily want to create a grim story where beleaguered people suffer increasingly horrible fantastic events, while continuing to suffer realistically horrible events.

Which is the line that The Haunting of Connecticut treads very carefully, and maybe not always successfully. This is the “true” story of the Campbells, a financially stressed couple with three kids whose oldest has cancer. The father (played by stalwart character actor Martin Donovan) is a recovering alcoholic whose fledgling contracting business drains the family bank account, while the mother (by longtime Maelstrom favorite Virginia Madsen) shuttles the sick kid (Kyle Gallner) back and forth from Connecticut, where he receives treatment, to their home in…some place eight hours from Connecticut.

OK, this didn’t bug The Boy (and wouldn’t have bugged me at that age, either), but I confess to finding it uncomfortable enough seeing a child (Gallner is in his 20s but he’s playing a teen) racked with cancer and suffering from chemo and radiation to where I tend to demand more out of a movie that uses those things as somewhat incidental story elements.

Anyway, the family makes the logical conclusion that they should relocate, at least temporarily to Conneck-ticut. (Pronunciation courtesy of recent birthday girl Katharine Hepburn in, I think, Philadelphia Story.) But the only suitable place they can afford has some history, so they pass–until the trip gets to be so long, Madsen can’t bear to put her son through it any more and so settles on the house with the history.

The movie gets off to a slow start this way. Unlike many horrors where we have a hard time seeing why the characters don’t extract themselves sooner, this one puts us pretty squarely in reasonable shoes. We see how they got there, and the initial signs of hauntings are experienced almost exclusively by the sick kid–who is undergoing treatment that apparently might cause hallucinations–we see why they stay.

In fact, it’s not until relatively late that anything indisputably supernatural occurs. There was a point where it looked like it might all be in the kid’s head, which would’ve been an interesting twist, though not the marketing boost that a supernatural “based on a true” story is presumed to be.

Rounding out the fine cast is Amanda Crew as the niece-who’s-handy-for-the-shower-scene and another stalwart character actor, Elias Koteas, as the priest with all the answers.

So, good acting. Pacing that starts slow but picks up about half-way in and stays pretty solid.

The Boy liked it a lot, and more than I did, but we both appreciated the change in tempo and character, as the movie got more supernatural, and the ending, which wasn’t the sort of knee-jerk nihlism that plagued the After Dark horror festival.

Maybe due to the Amityville connection–the couple that pimped the story when it “happened” back in the ‘90s, were the same couple that pimped the Amityville Horror–it felt a little bit like a throwback, but overall this is a decent movie.

True story? Not so much.

Friday The 13th, Part 2

You almost have to admire a movie that completely invalidates its own predecessor in the first few minutes.

WARNING: Once again, here be spoilers.

The first 6-7 minutes of Part 2 recaps the last several scenes of Part 1, and ends with the sole survivor of Part 1 (Adrienne King) getting a screwdriver to the head. After which, the killer politely removes her tea kettle from the stove.

Part 2 is full of unintentionally silly things like that.

But the big ol’ plot flaw is, of course, Jason Voorhees, ghost of the first film, ends up the slasher in this, and most of the remaining movies. He’s not a supernatural force, though, he’s a kid who grew up in the wild.

Wait, what? Didn’t his mother kill everyone for letting him die? Are you saying she wasn’t a mother-of-the-year candidate as she pretended? Jason wasn’t really dead at all?

This movie takes place five years after the last one, so that young Jason could grow up. Lest you find yourself inclined to give the film makers credit for even that, I remind you that Jason died in 1958. That was spelled out in Part 1. He dies, the there are murders the following year, the camp burns down.

So, were he not an undead creature, he’d be in his 30s by part 1. Unless we are to presume that the first movie takes place in 1960 and this one in 1965. (Pay no attention to the jogging suits!)

Well, a sequel was needed. This one has even more sex and maybe even more violence than the last and because there’s no need for a Scooby-Doo reveal, it has the more plausible hulking figure of a grown-up Jason doing his dirty deeds.

Oh, he’s gonna get those counselors back for…for…for…um…chasing him off and forcing him to live in the woods while convincing his mother he had drowned.

No drugs in this one, unless you count alcohol. Actually, if memory serves, there’s really not much drug use in any of the movies. That’s one of those things–like the virgin living–that comes more from fuzzy memories.

Much like the original movie, it doesn’t really matter who survives this one. But we know when Amy Steel starts to sort-of defend Jason that she’s the one. I love the little speech she gives when she’s trying to be sensitive to what Jason might have become, “What would he be like today? Out of control psycho? Frightened retard? Child trapped in a man’s body?”

Well, whatever he is, he managed to track down the survivor from the first movie, call her on the phone, pick the lock on the door to her house–remember, she’s having constant nightmares five years later, no way does she not lock the door–and ninja up behind her despite the hard-soled “casual elegance” shoes, which he’ll later change for a pair of shiny black ones.

So, obviously not “full retard”.

I believe this is the first movie to give us the full-on cheat shock. When the guy in the wheelchair–you heard me–gets it, the camera closes on him from front and back. There’s no one around. When it gets in close, an arm with a cleaver comes out of nowhere to chop the guy across the face. But in order for that angle to make any sense, Jason would have to be kneeling or crouching at a 45 degree angle in front of the guy, and we’ve already seen there’s no one there.

This pales compared to when he garottes ol’ Crazy Ralph from behind a large tree! Long arms, that guy, to reach with the garotte over the top of the tree and then bring it down in front of Ralph’s neck. Or maybe he nun-chucked it.

Stuff like this, which ultimately becomes the hallmark of the F13 series, really destroys any chance to achieve suspense, unless it’s the sort of suspense you get from wondering when Bugs Bunny is going to let Elmer Fudd have it.

About the wheelchair thing: It’s not until Kane Hodder takes on the role of Jason in the 7th movie that there are any rules to his behavior, and so the Jason of the early films is just not a very nice guy. Guy in wheelchair? Fair game. Children or animals? Fair game.

Blech.

This movie does less sproingy-body tricks than the previous, presumably because Jason doesn’t have his mother’s engineering savvy (though he does manage to make himself a nice rope-tree trap), but it has a particularly odd scene where Jason kills a couple in bed, hangs the guy’s body up on the wall, does something unknown with the girl’s, and then gets in bed and waits! Because he knows, I guess, that someone will come looking in that bed soon enough. (Nobody would think of letting a young couple be undisturbed for the night, I guess.)

What’s awesome is that he then hides all of the bodies, but without ever leaving the house. I think he even manages to take one of the bodies to his forest hideout, too, while in pursuit of the surviving counselors. You wish you were that creative.

Despite his teleportation skills, Jason’s pretty weak in this one. He gets knocked over by the slight Amy Steel, she kicks him in the groin, and she confuses him by dressing like his mother. (Hello, Oepdipus!) He stands on a rickety chair to fool the girl under the bed into thinking he’s gone. (Say what? What kind of killing-machine slasher doesn’t just drive his pitchfork through the bed, like he’s done so many times before?)

In a weak attempt to recreate the thunder of the original, the two survivors “kill” Jason–who wears a flour sack over his head in this one–only to crash through a window and grab the girl sans mask. (He looks like a cross between the Elephant Man and Jack Black as the farmer in this Mr. Show sketch, “The Farm House Musical”.)

Inexplicably, Amy Steel (“Ginny”) is left alive while the hapless John Furey (“Paul”) simply vanishes. No rhyme or reason, except perhaps to give the series a protagonist.

Somewhat amusingly, Adrienne King, the survivor from Part 1 wasn’t offered a big role in Part 2 due to a miscommunication–and Amy Steel wouldn’t take any role in Part 3 on her agent’s advice. At least Steel and Furey would go on to have real careers, even as F13 would go on to lack any semblance of continuity.

Gore-wise, this one is particularly uninspired. A lot of slit throats, an impalement (a twofer!) and members of the cast seem to just vanish. (They actually do: They go into town, never to return, not even when the police are hauling away Amy Steel at the end.)

The next entry in the series would rip off a few of the original movies’ deaths, but would at least provide some particularly creative new ones–and in eye-popping (heh) 3D. It would also be the first film not to take place on Friday the 13th. (Not that this ever seemed to be a prominent feature in any of the movies. Let’s be honest, they called it “Friday the 13th” because they needed a holiday and “Groundhog Day” just doesn’t sound very scary.)

Friday The 13th (1980)

In honor of the upcoming explosive remake of the film-series equivalent of “The Guest That Wouldn’t Leave”, I thought I’d review the original series. The remake already cracks me up, with the extended trailer being a second-long shot of everyone killed in the movie. (13 people, get it?)

Suspense is over-rated, I guess. Although one of those 13 looks like it might actually be the mad killer his own self, so there’s some suspense there if you don’t know that it’s impossible to kill a successful horror villain.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil like crazy since the movie is almost 30 years old, and it was pretty well spoiled on the day it came out.

As a little background, I should note that I rather despised this series as it was happening. I saw one in the theater. I saw the first one on TV because I’d heard so much about it. I saw the third one in the theater, because it was in 3D. (I saw, I think, all of the 3D movies that came out in the ‘80s, and they had two things in common: They ranged from bad to unimaginably awful, and the glasses made my eyes hurt.) That was about it until long after the series ended (the first time) in 1993.

For various perverse reasons that would require you to report me to Children’s Services, I’m not going to explain how it is that I’ve become something of an expert on the series. You’ll just have to take it on faith that I am, and that I’m very, very sorry for what I’ve done.

Anyway, over time, I began to appreciate the sheer awfulness of the films. They’re not just bad singly, they’re bad as a series. Jason Voorhees is an iconic slasher now, of course, but it took six movies to come up with the complete ensemble and “character” that he’s now recognized as–and which only lasted for the next two movies before the series ended with the ninth. (Though the modern “reboot”, of course, skips all that.)

The basic premise of the film is simple: Halloween had cost less than half-a-million to make and made nearly $40M, couldn’t similar returns be had for an even cheaper movie that stole the best ideas?

If you think I’m being snarky, I’m not really: One refreshing thing about F13 is that nobody making that first movie had any pretensions whatsoever. The various interviews of cast and crew that can be found start with, “Well, I needed the money and …” Betsy Palmer needed to buy a car (scroll to last question).

The story itself borrows more from Scooby-Doo than Halloween: Mysterious disappearances at a summer camp are caused by a completely unknown character who is unmasked at the film’s climax. (In the above article, Palmer says that she told director Cunningham that it was unfair only to show her at the end, but that he was right. I’m unconvinced. It did feel like cheating.)

As I said, they’re stealing from Halloween, which basically had a slasher who was hung up on sex and fond of posing bodies in freaky ways, so they base the story around naughty counsellors who have sex and smoke pot, and really does some very elaborate body posing. I mean, we’re talking wires and pulleys–it’s extensive.

Which adds to the absurdity when we discover that 54-year-old Betsy Palmer is the culprit. Not only is she able to easily dispatch virile young Kevin Bacon (and his prominent penis), she’s able to lift bodies into trees and cause them to fall out at appropriate moments.

She kills Bacon by grabbing his forehead from underneath the bed–hella long arms–holding him down, and driving a knife or spear through the mattress, through his spine and out through the front of his throat. And then turning it.

So, it’s not just a cheat, it’s a ridiculous cheat. And then Palmer finds herself challenged trying to dispatch the frail Adrienne King. Their fight scene is, admittedly, pretty intense.

Oh, what? You wanted to hear about Kevin Bacon’s penis? It’s not a big deal (ha!), he waves it around more than Harvey Keitel. It may be accidental in this film but during the swimming scene, he’s wearing a very, very tight Speedo-like brief. Did I mention that he’s circumcized?

The scene where young Jason Voorhees makes his appearance (to the “Love Theme from Friday the 13th”) is definitely a shocker though it, too, makes no sense. We have to assume that he is some sort of undead creature, since the whole impetus for the slaughters was his death. (Plus, the flesh is falling off his skull.)

Or we could assume it was just a dream.

The next movie will completely undermine any logical or even coherent supernatural explanations for what Jason is or was.

A lot of imagined slasher conventions grew up around this series. For example, because Michael Meyers of Halloween killed everyone but the virginal Laurie Strode, there’s this imagined cliché that the “good girl” is the survivor. But as a veteran of ’80s horror movies, I can assure you there seldom was a good girl. And in this, first in the series, Jason’s first modern victim doesn’t have a chance to do anything. She’s just killed for having the audacity to apply for a job at a summer camp.

The survivor, Alice (Adrienne King), is not a good girl, either. Although she’s not shown having sex with the camp director, the implication is there. She is shown smoking weed, too. Although the “one female survivor” trope is the rule for, I think, most of the movies, the big problem here is that the characters are bland enough to completely interchangeable.

Now, if the purpose of the movies is to showcase gory special effects, we can give at least the first movie its due: This was pretty graphic stuff for the time, and fairly convincing. Of course, as time has passed and movies have gotten shorter and shorter shots, those full 2-3 second gore shots have aged very poorly.

High definition makes it even worse: You can pretty much see how all the effects were done now. In fact, in some shots, the fake skin is so obvious as to make you wonder how you ever fell for it.

This movie duplicated Halloween’s box office success but lacked a director like Carpenter whose idea of hell would be producing sequel after sequel of the same crap. Hence, the next eight movies.

Believe it or not, the series goes downhill from here: Way down.

Torture Porn Redux

I may have misled Knox in my recommendations post by referring to Borderland as not torture porn. I see my reviews at the time suggest otherwise but apart from a gory opening, I’m not remembering the details. As I recall, the horrors were less flamboyant and more banally real–making them all the more horrible.

I remember mostly being concerned about it, rather than it actually happening. I’ll review it when I can and see if my recall is correct.

Meanwhile I’m watching Captivity, which caused a kerfuffle when it came out because of its posters. The kerfuffle struck me as dumb. It is torture porn, though, by my definition. The movie’s sole purpose seems to be to degrade Elisha Cuthbert. Her abuse, interspersed with other women being abused, dominates the first half hour. The second half hour is more abuse, with another person being abused alongside her.

The final half hour is the big reveal, the why, the twist ending. The entree into this part is really, really stupid, but that’s not the point, really. The point is, we’ve had an hour of torture up till now, there’s nothing you can bookend it with that makes this movie not about sadism, or that makes it a documentary, or anything other than enjoying that first hour at some level.

Ick.

The script was co-written by schlockmeister Larry Cohen, who recently wrote the tight Phone Booth and Cellular but who goes back to the blaxploitation days and the It’s Alive series. He also directed one of the better “Masters of Horror” episodes. No big shocka, though, he’s a working man, and someone probably said, “Hey, Larry, whip us up something Saw-like.”

The real gut-punch, though, is that it’s directed by two-time Oscar nominee Roland Joffe, who achieved fame with The Killing Fields and The Mission–which was referred to as something akin to torture porn at the time, unfairly, in my opinion–and then went weirdly off the rails by directing (at least in part) Super Mario Bros., the first ever video game movie.

Freeman Hunt (whose blog is missing from my roster on the right, I just noticed) maintained in an earlier thread that the Saw movies were just about torture–that that was all that was going on. But here you see when that really happens. Cuthbert is simply tortured. There’s no suspense, really. She’s going to be tortured, she can’t do anything to stop it, there’s no transformation that can occur, she’s done nothing wrong other than be pretty and famous.

If you just can’t tolerate the gore, all the reasons for it–however, good–won’t change that. If that’s what you’re into, then you don’t care about the reasons. But if you see it as just another color in the palette, then there’s minimally an aesthetic and maximally a morality to how it’s applied.

Best of Fest

Knox asked me which films I would recommend from previous After Dark festivals, and whether they were things you could actually view on (e.g.) Netflix. Last question first: Yes, they’re all get-able through Amazon.com and get aired on FearNet and sometimes the Sci-Fi channel, so I have to assume they’re available through Netflix as well.

I wouldn’t recommend watching any horror movie on a network that has commercials, with the exception of FearNet because FearNet only puts one commercial break in, early on. (They do the noise at the bottom of the screen, though, which is nasty.)

Recommending movies is a much harder process, because it’s highly personal (and doubly so for horror) and the experience tends to be different at home which affects some movies more than others.

But assuming you’re not a horror fanatic, there are a few recommendations I can make pretty comfortably.

Borderland is probably the most genuinely frightening film of the three festivals, not because it’s based on a true story (which is usually an excuse for lameness) but because it’s so very, very plausible. Americans down in Mexico end up crossing paths with a violent gang. Sean Astin plays a very creepy role. I remember being concerned that it was going to veer into “torture porn” but the horribleness is mostly kept at a very real level–that is, you know, in real life, we’re more rattled by things that we brush off in horror movies–and is still very effective. (UPDATE: My reviews at the time say it is, actually, torture porn-style violence. So, use caution.)

The Gravedancers is probably the most fun. It stars “haunted house” and goes “Poltergeist”, with more than a nod to “Scooby Doo”.

Rinne (Reincarnation)is probably my favorite movie of the three festivals, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a mystery, you have to be very attentive, and it breaks Blake’s law of movie reincarnation (which is that audiences reject using dramatically different actors for the same characters). But it “made sense” to me. (It reveals “the rules” and “follows the rules” without being predictable.) Apparently some people find it slow, though. Subtitled. Must be relatively immune from “they all look alike” syndrome.

I love the atmosphere in Unrest, which is powered almost entirely by the verisimilitude of the situation. The corpses are not just realistic, they’re real. The writer/director having been a med student gets the feel just right.

In an entirely separate way, I loved the “realism” of Mulberry Street,which comes from the setting and the truly excellent characterization. I get the idea that the writer/director pulled his friends out of the neighborhood and said “Here, be in my movie.” Which may be totally false–because they all do their lines excellently and without sounding stilted–but it feels that way. The movie runs out of steam when it goes into standard zombie/plague mode, sort of ironically, or this movie would be a horror classic.

I can’t really recommend The Abandonedbecause I didn’t like it. But I don’t like this kind of movie. No matter how well done, if I know the characters are doomed from the start and yet the movie is going to make them go through the motions of surviving, I get both bored and pissed off. But for whatever reason, this movie is the only one they show on pay cable so maybe it’s a good example of a kind of movie I really dislike.

In the horror-like-Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-is-horror category, there’s The Deaths of Ian Stone.This is one of the few films that had a real budget, like $14M or something. It shows. And while it’s darker than Buffy, it feels like it could be a pilot for a Buffy-like series.

Butterfly Effect: Revelationhas a similar feel. I mean, the whole premise isn’t far off from “Quantum Leap”, which always threatened to scramble Sam’s brains. They just do it in this one.

Out of the 24 films, then, I’d feel comfortable recommending six pretty strongly. Sturgeon’s Law and all that.

If you’re okay with campy low-budget type flicks, then I can add Tooth & Nail,Nightmare Manand Autopsy.The camp in T&N may be entirely accidental but director Kanefsky (Nightmare) knows the limits of his medium and knows a laugh is as good as a shriek–and Autopsy is so completely committed to the “funhouse” style, it’s unimaginable that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.

So, those are my recommendations.

Except for Autopsy, there’s not really any heavy gore in any of them (and the gore in Autopsy is right on the line of horrific/comic). Oh, there’s a compound fracture in T&N, that’s always good for an “ew”, and the majority of Unrest features half-dissected corpses as props. (I’m trying to remember if there was a lot of gore in Borderland. If there is, I’ve blocked it out.)

For hardcore fans, most of the movies have something to recommend them. And for would-be filmmakers, these would have to be interesting if only to examine: a) how much can be done on so little; b) how easy it is to go off the rails.

But for entertainment, the six abovementioned are worth the 80-90 minutes.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Voices

I was pleased when the credits started rolling and this turned out to be a Korean film. ADHF #2 didn’t have any foreign films, and were it me, I’d be trying to push the foreign stuff, since you have the chance of a high quality film that can’t get access just because it’s subtitled. Also, my favorite film of ADHF #1 was the Takashi Shimizu (of The Grudge–trust me, he’s better in Japanese) film Rinne.

This film is actually similar in some ways to The Grudge, in the sense that there’s a curse causing people to act out their jealousies by killing their rivals. Call it The Blame.

The problem with all of these abstract-concept-comes-to-life films–and other killer ghost story movies like The Ring or One Missed Call–is that without defining some clear parameter for your boogen to operate in, you give the game away that you’re just making it up as you go and ending the movie in the 6th reel.

Really, it’s vital for a horror movie to have rules. (Or any fantasy film.) Without it, you’re not performing the “trick” of art that your audience wants.

For example, The Ring is powered by the idea that the ghost can be stopped by doing something for it. That gives the characters a task to undertake that can help them avoid their fate. Then, when the truth is revealed, this gives them another, different task. This is good.

Another good example can be found in The Sixth Sense, even though the characters and the audience are not ever made explicitly aware of the rules. In fact, it can be fun to go back and look at all the clues (the colors, the effects, etc.) that indicate when ghosts are around.

Without rules, the audience feels cheated, which is unfortuantely what happens here. I’m not going to rag on this movie much because it wasn’t boring, which is the absolute worst crime for a horror film (or perhaps any film, although being unfunny may be even worse).

Basically, anyone can turn on you at any time. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Worst of all, one of the characters admonishes that you can’t even trust yourself. Well, that’s like the deus ex machina of any horror story, since you can always end it by having the character do soemthing unintended by fooling with their perception. That can done well, but it’s very tricky. (See Fight Club for a good example–but once again there are rules.)

The end tries to make us believe that, somehow, the events of the film are set into action by the characters, as if they had control over it all along, but that just feels like a big cheat. There’s no reason for it and no control.

So it wasn’t the worst we saw, but it was disappointing. It should have worked: The whole concept of your family and friends having the urge to kill you–which you know they all do, or is that just me?–could’ve made a tight, paranoid film like Bug.

Instead, the film is unfocused, having the lead meander about as person after person harms or kills themselves trying to kill her.

Then the movie tags on an epilogue which would’ve perhaps helped the film hang together had it been filmed with the lead and stuck at the beginning of the movie, but just ends up feeling like a cheat.

Kind of a disappointing ending to the whole festival, which itself was kind of disappointing.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Broken

Doppelgangers were big for a brief while in the ‘70s, but they’ve had a resurgence of late because of Geoul sokeuro (remade as Mirrors). And, actually, if I’m not mistaken, the evil doppelganger is a common “effect” in Asian horror, if not as an entire plot. (That is to say, I think there are a lot of Asian horror movies where a person sees an evil version of someone else.)

This was actually our “big name” movie, even more so than the mad doctor flick Autopsy, which we saw yesterday. This one featured the hot (in more ways than one) Lena Heady (of 300 and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) and Richard Jenkins (who should get an Oscar nom for The Visitor but it’s not looking good).

And, essentially, what we have here is Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It’s so, so boring.

I mean, okay, it was obvious to us within the first few minutes what was going on, but you know, I can watch Invasion over and over again, even though I know exactly what’s happening. The ’50s one or the ’70s remake, even. (I draw the line at the two latest ones, though.)

This has the similar problem as Slaughter in that they expect atmosphere to carry them through the uneventful parts, and it just plain doesn’t. Remember that all eight movies are under 90 minutes–this one was really short, they say 88 minutes but I’m thinking under 85 if you don’t count the credits.

But it seems so much longer.

You’re waiting for something to happen. And waiting, and waiting. There are two or three good chilling moments, but that works out to nearly a half-an-hour of nothing in-between them–or it would, if they were spread out, which they’re not. They all come at right around the same point.

And the reveal is tortuously slow.

Despite the good production qualities and acting, this would be my pick for worst of fest.

OK, let me see if I can think of something else to say about it. Well, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, really. Which was something of a trend this year: Directors and writers so obsessed with having a “twist”, they make their whole movie nonsense–and then the twist is actually “generic horror ending #4”.

I don’t find windows particularly menacing, I’ve discovered. I don’t find the London skyline very menacing, though I do wonder what’s up with the giant penis building and the Brobdingnagian Ferris wheel. Dripping water doesn’t threaten me. Whatever technology they have that allows them to simulate (or just super slow down) car collisions is cool, but not really very interesting after the 14th or 15th time you’ve seen it.

Seriously, there’s a car collision which is the focal point of this movie, but the actual purpose it plays in the story is murky. That is, it hides behavior from the main character that is part of the Big Reveal, but since the events of the Big Reveal occur before the collision, there’s no real reason for the events prior to the Big Reveal to have occurred at all.

The ultimate problem, though, is that while the menace in Body Snatchers comes from an increasing awareness of the intent of the invaders and the scope of their plan, at the end of this movie, you don’t know anything about the doppelgangers. Why are they doing this? Are they just evil? If so, how is the premise of the movie even possible?

As I said, worst in show.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Autopsy

Another in the generically named series, this was probably our favorite movie of the day. It’s also misnamed: There are, in fact, no autopsies. This reminds me most, I suppose, of Horror Hospital, from the mid-70s.

A bunch of college-age kids get into a car accident and are taken to a hospital (in New Orleans? Katrina is mentioned!) whereupon they one-by-one get to “see the doctor”.

This is a mad-doctor-tries-to-save-his-wife movie, in the vein of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, e.g. It’s really kind of old school. And it helps that the mad doctor is none other than the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick.

And, speaking of James Cameron alumni, in the Nurse Ratched role, we have none other than Jenette Goldstein (Sgt. Vazquez in Aliens, John Connor’s foster mother in Terminator 2), looking more than a bit frumpy if not downright frowzy.

This is the movie equivalent of a fun-house ride. There are a lot of set-ups for scares, and the scares and done knowingly, in such a way that you’re set up for one thing but get a completely different surprise. These don’t always make sense but, seriously, why should you care?

This is also the first movie that wasn’t unrelentingly grim. There are some good, deliberate laughs in the movie. And this movie gets the “best image” award for the fest (so far), involving a great deal of let’s say “floating viscera”.

It’s a little bit campy and a lot creative. A fun, fast-moving watch!

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Perkins 14

Now, Crazy Eights + 75%! No, actually, this ends up with more of a Mulberry Street vibe, though it’s set in a small town, which is a lot easier to pull off.

Basically, our movie features the interesting face of Patrick O’Kane as Dwayne Hopper, a cop who’s been brooding over the loss of his boy since his abduction 10 years previously. He’s jeopardized his job and is on the verge of losing his family. When we meet him, he’s about filling in for a friend on the night shift at the precinct.

The residents that night include a “usual” (who amusingly turns out to be an eco-terrorist) and a guy named Roland Perkins (portrayed by excellent heavy Richard Brake, who played Joe Chill in Batman Begins) who tried to flee a traffic stop. As the night progresses, Dwayne becomes more and more convinced that Perkins is the serial abducter who kidnapped 14 kids ten years ago.

The title is, of course, the giveaway there.

So, this part of the movie works. A little mystery, some nice interaction between O’Kane and Brake.

The next part of the movie involves the 14 Perkins “kids” but is, essentially, a zombie movie. O’Kane powers this, as he becomes determined to rescue his daughter (the gorgeous Shayla Beesley) and his wayward wife (Mihaela Mihut). All three do a good job here and the build-up to the final act is pretty good.

At last, they decide to barricade up in the police station. A logical choice on paper, this is where the movie falls apart. After risking life and limb to get to the police station, they move around dangerously and ultimately decide they need to leave. Rather than, say, holing up in a cell until at least the morning.

This act only has the vestiges of the family dynamic from the second act, and Dwayne’s hope that he can somehow connect again with his long-lost son.

The ending goes totally obvious and cliché, unfortunately.

Director Craig Singer’s last appearance at the fest was at the helm of #1’s Dark Ride, which suffered from a similar problem: The first third of the movie is funny, referential (to the slasher genre), and fast-moving. When they finally get to the amusement park, it’s as if amnesia set in, and they were unaware anyone had ever directed a slasher-in-a-funhouse flick.

So, hey, you know, this is better.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Slaughter

Inspired by true events. Few words strike fear into my heart than those. Usually it’s a poor substitute for a well-plotted movie with a lot of really awful stuff that’s based on nothing but the film maker’s attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator.

The generically named Slaughter claims to be so inspired. How generic is the name? Well, I thought this Slaughter was the one where a bunch of actors find themselves in a Japanese snuff film. When, in fact, this is the Slaughter where a woman on the run from an abusive boyfriend finds herself on a farm populated by menacing rednecks.

The Boy opined that he would like to see rednecks be cast as the heroes once.

The “true events” may be a 100 year old story where a farm family lured city folk to their doom to steal their stuff and then fed them to their pigs. (I think I saw that on HBO’s “Autopsy”. ) That sort of fits, though very loosely.

Anyway, the story as it’s told here is that Faith (Amy Shiels) is fleeing her abusive boyfriend, and ends up befriending Lola (Lucy Holt) and staying with her at the family farm. The first half of the film abounds with menace: Men in clubs, the old boyfriends, the men at the farm–hey, they don’t call it menace for nothing.

This film’s biggest problem is that the menace is dull, virtually Lifetime movie-of-the-week girl stuff about Faith and Amy’s horrible upbringings. This does come in to play later, but that doesn’t actually make it any less slow.

When the action gets going, the movie picks up tremendously. It veers into a slightly unexpected territory and plays out in slightly unexpected ways. It only goes off the rails at the end–which, unfortunately, is the by-word for this festival’s movies. (Four, maybe five, depending on how you reckon it, out of the six movies so far have pretty much gone the “everyone dies” route which is just a cheap out.)

The only other thing I’d add, maybe weirdly, is that the actresses seemed to old for their parts. It’s not something I notice, usually, but Faith is between 18-21 and Amy is under 18. This is important to the plot, but I would’ve guessed both girls were in their mid-20s.

Verdict: The action parts are better than the scare parts.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Dying Breed

Inbred hillbilly cannibals menace city folk.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it in Tasmania? I think not! (Joe Bob Briggs is going to sue me for stealing his shtick.)

Leigh Whannel is best known as the writer of the first three “Saw” movies and producer of the whole series. But before that, he was an actor, as he is here, in this rather by-the-numbers hillbilly horror flick.

Seems his movie-girlfriend is on the hunt for a rare Tasmanian beastie (which I believe they have found but don’t disclose the location of in real life) and also for answers as to her sister’s drowning eight years previous. He invites jerky buddy along for the trip and buddy brings along girlfriend, so that we have plenty of potential victims.

Before you know it, they’ve pulled up in a small “town” in out-of-cell-tower-range territory and are being menaced by the locals. Although the locals actually seemed pretty nice to me. Maybe it’s just the Aussie accent.

Actually, tThe accents are somewhat Irish which is confusing to me since I didn’t know if they were Aussies trying to do Irish accents or if some Aussies actually have Irish-ish accents.

Then they’re 10 miles into the out–well, not the Outback because it’s Tasmania, but whatever the Tasmanian equivalent is–and walking around trying not to fall into mineshafts.

The jerky guy–who’s really very jerky–brandishes a crossbow, which upsets the lead, but I was thinking if it were me, everyone would have a pistol, a rifle, a knife and possibly some small explosives (or optional automatic weaponry).

There’s not much to write here because it’s mostly pretty standard, with a little twist at the climax which sort of gets untwisted at the end, which gives us a kind of twist-ish stinger. Except it wasn’t surprising in the least. It was sort of like, “Oh, yeah. I guess that makes sense. Or something like it.”

Not horrible, and less cliché-driving than From Within (which was really merciless as far as the stereotyping goes), still a lot less than I was hoping for.

Butterfly was definitely the winner of day 1.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Butterfly Effect: Revelation

I didn’t see the first Butterfly Effect due to my severe allergies to Ashton Kutcher. (I don’t know why. I barely know who the guy is. I’m probably just pissed he wouldn’t do a sequel to Dude! Where’s My Car?) So I don’t know what, if anything, this has to do with the previous two movies.

I didn’t see the second installment because I blinked.

The basic premise is that the lead character can change the past by–em–well, he time travels by sitting in a bathtub fill of ice in the dark. I gather that this is given a more plausible treatment in the first film but in this one we don’t waste any time justifying it. (In fact, I think they get around it by saying he doesn’t actually time travel.)

Look, the guy can time travel, let it go already. Think of it as “Quantum Leap” with gore and a gratuitous sex scene.

When the movie opens, he’s doing what he does for the cops: Basically, he travels back in time to the scenes of crimes and IDs the perps. This falls within the confines of “the rules”, the things you can and can’t do without frying your mind or unleashing the dreaded butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect, of course, is when you make a change, however minor, to the timestream. The ripple effects from that cause massive changes in history, and in the case of this movie, the time-traveler ends up with a mashed-up memory of both timelines. (I think. It’s a little hard to tell what the main character knows and doesn’t know.)

So, the trouble begins when a childhood friend–the sister of his murdered girlfriend, in fact–exhorts him to use his talent (nobody knows the icy bath thing, they just know he knows stuff) to clear a wrongly accused man about to be put to death and to find the real killer.

But going back to your own life causes all kinds of problems and God help you if you change your own timeline.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Every time our hero goes back in time to right something, he wakes up in a new present with new people dead and his own life worse off than before. Before you know it, he’s created a serial killer and gone from taking care of his shut-in sister (whom he saved in a previous incident but at the cost of his parents dying) to being taken care of her.

The sister, by the way, is played by Rachel Miner, who I always figure should be the daughter of horror-meister Steve Miner, but doesn’t appear to be. Ms. Miner has the distinction of being the only actress I know of who has appeared in all three Horrorfests: In #1, she was the eponymous Penny Dreadful and in #2, she was in the much enjoyed Tooth and Nail.

The Boy liked this one a lot, as did I. Chris Carmack in the lead has to play an increasingly confused and unstable character, and you do feel sorry for him even if you wonder how smart he is to keep going back trying to fix stuff.

The aforementioned gratuitous sex scene is pretty funny, just because it goes on way longer than necessary, only to end with a “I guess I’m just not in the mood.”

Anyway, this film does follow a nice dramatic arc, pulls you in, gives a sense of real danger, and then a pretty satisfying climax and denouement. There is a certain preposterousness to it, even accepting the time-travel stuff. The plot hinges on a looseness in “the rules” that isn’t really explained or justified, and the ending is a little too neat (though with an obligatory “…or is it?” feel).

But, hey, not complaining. It was different enough and fun enough.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: From Within

A curse afflicts members of a small town, causing them to “commit suicide”. Crazy Christian community members decide to blame the local witches.

Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it…uh…have we seen it…have we seen it…

OK, yeah, we’ve seen it. There’s nothing really original about this film. The old “witch’s curse” thing hasn’t really been big since the ‘70s, but they’ve sauced it up a bit with Japanese-style horror effects. Actually, come to think of it, that part is highly reminiscent of Mirrors.

The boy pronounced it “run of the mill”. At the same time, we both agreed it wasn’t boring. One reason is that it’s mercifully short. Another reason is that the general production quality is good: Good cinematography, good acting, lighting, sound, etc.

But it is relentlessly clichéd: Screenwriter Brad Keene wrote one of my favorite films of the first After Dark Horrorfest, Gravedancers. It was also rife with clichés but it sort of takes them to the wall, with the movie getting progressively more outrageous. It was a light, sorta funny-scary that moved from “haunted house” to “Frighteners”-style.

This one starts as standard coven ‘n’ curse and ends that way, too, though I guess you might give the ending a few points for not totally Scooby-Dooing out. It has a kind of a “Twilight” vibe, too, with the Christian girl liking the, uh, Witch boy.

Curiously, IMDB lists this as having a planned sequel for 2010.

There’s a peculiar problem with this sort of film: It’s almost necessary (apparently) for the Christians to be clueless and powerless against the real witchy, and to show them as narrow-minded bigots. At the same time, they sorta have to be right. So we’re confronted with at least one character who has to be both sympathetic and murderous.

The movie could’ve been better without that constraint. If there’s a plot more stale than “small town narrow-minded Christians go wrong” I am not aware of it.

I actually enjoyed this more than the first film last year (Unearthed) which, while beautifully produced, was really dull.

Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There’s some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one…or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that’s also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it’s not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are “beyond labels” in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn’t doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff’s all right. There’s a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it’s a bit slow.

It’s also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That’s not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn’t buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn’t convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera’s at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There’s a sleight-of-hand that’s not very convincing even when it’s all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that’s a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it’s not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.

Strangers In A Familiar Land

Update for Ace of Spadesers: Thanks for clicking through and thanks to Ace for the link. You can click on the poorly maintained “reviews” keyword below to see some other bits of criticism I’ve written (mostly movies, some books, the occasional game). I do quite a bit of horror, so you might look at that and also post-apocalypse stuff is big. Still, some prefer the pointy breasts (start at the bottom of that link if you want to see how it all got started). Also, there’s a little slice-of-life series called Conversations from the Living Room. Thanks for stopping by!



I am adding
the following annotation to my will:

Should I die in mysterious and violent circumstances, please do not allow them to portray me as a jackass in the horror movie portrayal of my final hours.

We went to The Strangers today which was “inspired by true events”. Since the entire movie takes place virtually without any interaction with anyone with any insight into what could have happened, what we have is a broad imaginary reconstruction between two real bookends, as we’ve seen before, many, many times.

Actually, in this case, the story is entirely fictitious, except that some people, somewhere, at some time, have been terrorized during home invasions.

That said, this a pretty good entry in the home invasion genre.

Now, the home invasion picture is usually an unpleasant affair: A gang of thugs invades some poor middle class (usually; occasionally wealthy people are the target) and the next 60 minutes are spent torturing and humiliating the poor bastards. Sometimes, at the end of the movie, a woman is offered a chance at revenge.

Nasty business, where the only suspense comes from wondering what horrid thing will happen next. (The quintessential such movie is Wes Craven’s execrable Last House on the Left.)

In The Strangers, however, the villains break a lot of rules. While no actual home invasion would miss these rules, the action is the better for it. Instead of subduing them, the three psychos terrorize them for the bulk of the movie.

Some good starts, nice atmosphere, creepy moments, even if it all feels sort of familiar.

So, what about the stupid parts? Well, at one point, the victims have a fully operable shotgun with lots of shells. At that point, you know, it should’ve been game over. The characters’ behavior wasn’t unbelievable, but it was stupid.

The other dumb thing is that, after the bad guys have demonstrated an ability to show up inside the house and move through it silently–whenever they feel like!–the man goes off to do something and tells the woman to stay behind, and he takes the gun with him! This one is a little less believable.

Overall, a watchable flick. Though it did strike me while watching it that horror movies, in particular, are far more effective in the theater. The lead couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) do a good job, and the movie comes in at a brisk 80 minutes or so.

So good work to Brian Bertino. But don’t let them make a movie like this about me.

After Dark 2007: Redux

Well, that sums up the eight movies.

Eight movies in three days. Eight horror movies in three days. I wonder why I do it to myself.

I’m glad the After Dark guys dropped the whole “too extreme” nonsense. These were actually milder films than many of the films released this year. And this isn’t a bad thing; people mistakenly think that Saw pushed the boundaries of gore when, of course, the ‘70s were littered with movies that make Saw look PG-13.

They just weren’t mainstream. Saw brought cleverness along with the gore, and in particular, allowed you to internalize the horror by imagining yourself in the situations portrayed. (After all, a maniac sawing off a leg is pretty mild, but sawing off your own leg at the risk of your family being killed–that brings it home a bit.)

I’ve heard the “fest” hasn’t done so well this year which is a shame, I guess. As challenging as it is to sit through them all, it’s fun and I’d hate to see it go away so soon.

Feel free to comment here or, if you like, go to the Loaded Shelf and put up your opinions there. You can also enter our book giveaway!

After Dark 2007: Crazy Eights

Crazy Eights

The last movie we saw was probably the biggest budget flick. Not for any special effects but for name actors.

Frank Whaley, Traci Lords, Gabrielle Anwar and Dina Meyer star with George Newborn and co-writer Dan DeLuca as grownups who (as kids) were institutionalized together as part of a behavioral experiment (and such things did happen, although this is not based on any particular incident as far as is detectable). They meet at the funeral of one of their friends and relive aspects of the past as the memories return.

So, sort of a The Big Chill with ghosts.

Last year, you may recall, I gave up on the fest with The Abandoned, which is a genre of film I just don’t care for. This movie actually falls in to the same genre—as becomes apparent when the six travelers drive past the same house over and over again—but this wasn’t so off-putting.

The good parts of this film include the acting, the setting, and the back-story. Well, sort of on the whole back-story thing. The problem with this movie is that it never decides what it wants to be.

Tantalizing things are hinted at. Nothing is ever truly settled upon. I suppose this could work. But here it just leaves questions without any strong motivation to pursue the answers to.

Obviously, these characters know each other and know that they know each other. But they don’t know that they were institutionalized. Or maybe they do, but they don’t know for how long. Or what happened while they were there. They’ve committed some kind of terrible crime; but in actual fact what is finally described sounds more like an accident of childish ignorance.

There’s an implication that they lack the capacity for guilt, and so are sociopathic, yet nothing at all about their characters suggests anything extraordinary about their emotional state (under the circumstances).

The stinger seems to be a pointless flashback. But it might be suggesting that none of what we’ve seen actually happened.

The characters are being tormented by a ghost. Or they’re doing it themselves.

Here’s the thing: The frisson in horror comes from a re-adjustment of perspective. Think of the marvellously chilling scene in Misery where James Caan discovers how tiny Kathy Bates really is. Think of the aftermath of the Alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest and the realization that everything has changed forever—and things aren’t going to be okay.

I’m avoiding spoilers here, so I won’t detail The Sixth Sense, The Others, and similar films where the chilling parts were often twists in the story line. The only way it works, however, is to take an unclear or incorrect audience perspective and throw it into contrast by illuminating something previously unknown.

In other words, we have to see how small Kathy Bates is in order to throw our view of her as a psychopath into contrast. We have to see the hulking killer Malcolm and understand his relationship to the vulnerable hooker Paris in order to make everything come together in Identity.

If we have no clear idea what’s going on and are presented with imagery that suggests yet another unclear idea, we get no frisson. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s missing from this potentially classic film.

After Dark 2007: Tooth & Nail

I love a good post-Apocalyptic thriller. It’s too bad one’s never been made. No, no, there are a few—very few—classics of the genre, but mostly they’re quite bad. And perhaps worse than just badness, they’re stupid. Take the Triple A title Children of Men: It posited all kinds of horrors that stemmed from women not being able to get pregnant, and missed the obvious ramifications of such a situation. (For example, if youth is exceedingly rare, it would also become exceedingly valuable; the idea that there would be youth running around unemployed seemed far-fetched.)

No, it’s really best if the whole reasons behind the apocalypse are ill-defined and not much discussed.

Tooth and Nail brings the stupid with its theory of apocalypse being “we run out of gas”. And the world collapses so quickly and thoroughly, there’s no time to adapt to coal, nuclear, natural gas, or whatever. Why? Because everyone floods south to warmer climates and wars ensue. As we all know from history lessons, prior to the refining of oil, everyone had to live in temperate zones.

Despite the apparent amnesia regarding “fire”—something that might have been handy with a bunch of people running around Philadelphia in light clothing—the heroes of our film seem to have acquired virtually no survival skills in their two or three years in the apocalypse.

I’m gonna keep ripping on this movie for a while longer, so you might be surprised to know that I did enjoy it quite a bit. But make no mistake, it’s dumb enough to have been a Michael Bay film.

And it really served no purpose to make this a post-apocalyptic thriller, except as a premise for locking up a bunch of college kids in a hospital so that a bunch of cannibals could come after them. Surely they could have thought of something else. Even the setting was dumb, though: Anyone who’s ever been in a large, modern hospital could tell you that six people could hide for weeks without being found by a dozen or so people searching for them.

In the dark.

So, the premise of the movie is that Ford (Rider Strong again!), Viper (Michael Kelly) and Dakota (Nicole DuPort) are out scavenging one day when they come across an injured girl, Neon (Rachel Miner). They bring her back to the hospital, where Professor Darwin (Robert Carradine) sets her to work fixing the water purifiers.

‘cause, you know, there’s a real shortage of water in Philly. Or maybe running out of gas ruined the water, even though everyone has moved south.

This causes stress because Viper (Michael Kelly) doesn’t trust Neon and wants to spend time fixing on the barriers instead of the damn water purifiers like the Professor wants. We never see “the barriers” by the way. When Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones, and their band of cannibalistic freaks invades the hospital, they walk in through one of the “dozen” entrances to the hospital.

Because, you know, despite civilization collapsing into violence, you wouldn’t worry about finding a defensible position to settle down in.

You also would be sure to let everyone follow their whims as far as relationships, even if it meant two of your young men were without women and therefore ties to your group. (Darwin is hooked up with Dakota, Torino is hooked up with Ford, and Viper and Yukon are celibate because Victoria is picky enough to make good on that “last man on earth” threat.)

You may have noticed that while our crew hasn’t picked up any worthwhile skills, nor done anything but sit around contemplating the future, they have found the time to rename themselves after automobiles.

Things go bad when Neon fesses up that she was fleeing a bunch of cannibals who will now be coming after Darwin’s gang. Needless to say, our crew acts like an apocalypse-hardened team who is used to defending themselves against any and all attacks.

Ha. Just kidding. They act like a bunch of pampered college kids who don’t know how to fight, strategize or set traps.

I should probably point out that if you love uber-nerd Robert Carradine and tough guy Michael Madsen like I do, you will want to keep in mind that, generally, the big name on a low-budget horror flick works for a couple of days. The star gets quick cash and the movie gets the name on the box. (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler.) Interestingly, Madsen is one of the producers of the film.

The movie actually gets increasingly preposterous. At one point, one of the characters suffers a compound fracture. No problem, right? These guys have been living in a hospital for 2-3 years, they’ve probably been studying first-aid, bandaging and splinting techniques, even minor surgery. They have all the supplies organized; that’s the smart part of using the hospital, right?

No, they never bother with any of that. This leads to a whole bunch of giggling in the audience whenever a medical matter comes up.

I could go on like this. Really. For days. As I said, nobody does post-apocalyptic stuff right. It takes too much thought. We’re all way too comfortable to think through what life would be like without society to take care of us.

The upshot, though, is that if you’re a master at suspending disbelief, this is a fun little movie. Carradine and Madsen’s brief performances are what you’d expect, and Vinne Jones (X-Men 3’s Juggernaut) is over the top. Rider Strong turns in a typically good performance, and I thought Alexandra Barreto and Michael Kelly were fairly believable characters in a context where little was believable.

One thing that makes the movie work is that it moves. Not to draw ridiculously high comparisons, but Road Warrior is not really less absurd than this film, but it also moves. That’s how you keep people from questioning the absurdities. (Where the hell do they get their tires from in that movie?)

The other thing that makes it work is the interplay between Rachel Miner and Nicole DuPort. Not unlike Emmanuelle Vaugier in Unearthed, neither actress looks particularly plausible as the strong-headed tough-minded leader in a crisis situation. Miner’s eyebrows are exquisitely sculpted and her skin flawless while Nicole DuPort’s hair looks salon styled whether she’s just set a bone or painted herself with half-camouflage/half-tiger face paint.

I guess you could say the film was thought-provoking, since I’ve been rambling about it for so long, but really, you shouldn’t watch this film with any sort of pretensions. There’s a review on IMDB talking about its Nietzsche-ian undertones, for example, and I think that’s probably setting the bar a little high.

But some folks would say that Children of Men was thought-provoking, where I would say a speculative fiction movie needs to make sense on its own terms before it can actually provoke thought about real life.

After Dark 2007: Nightmare Man

Nigthmare Man

The home stretch of our festival experience began with Rolfe Kanefsky’s Nightmare Man, probably the lowest budget feature after Mulberry Street. Curiously enough, the effects used on Mulberry Street allowed me to watch the whole thing without thinking, “Wow, this was shot on video.” (And Mulberry was even shot on mini-DV, which I understand is even crappier than regular video.)

The outdoor day shots, especially the tracking shots, absolutely scream “shot on video”, which definitely kicks in some prejudices. (Think “Spanish Soap Opera”.) Once the night rolls in, though, the camerawork is nice enough to distract from the cheapness.

Anyway, the story concerns the emotionally fragile Ellen (Blythe Metz) whose dim-witted husband William (Luciano Szafir) is having her committed, as she is constantly haunted by nightmares. (I don’t think you can actually commit someone for having nightmares, no matter how real, or even outright schizophrenia unless you can prove a danger to themselves or others, but roll with it.) Oh, and I guess William isn’t really dim-witted, but he really seems like it.

Actually, all the men in the movie seem dim-witted, when you get down to it, even “Night Court”’s Richard Moll, who has a small role as a cop.

Kanefsky does a lot here with his budget. The story moves along with the action, giving us a bit more than the usual “10 Little Indians” plot, and he’s not afraid to exploit comic moments when they arise. This is smart, the audience is going to do it unless you do it for them—as in Tooth & Nail—and the movie ends up feeling like it’s still under his control, when the big reveal happens in the third act.

We happened to see Rolfe and Esther Goodstein in the lobby on Friday handing out autographs for this movie and she was pushing the surprising twists and turns at the end. I’m sorry to say that I knew more-or-less exactly what was going to happen from the opening scene of the movie, sans a few details that didn’t fill in until Tiffany Shepis showed up in the second act

I’m not good at that sort of thing, really. I didn’t see The Sixth Sense coming, for example. (But all subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movies have been devoid of surprise for me because I know how he thinks now.) But really, there was only one way for the story to go.

The key thing is that you have fun getting there.

Veteran Tiffany Shepis is as believable as any of the other 90lb-5’3” ass-kicking chicks we saw over the weekend but I’d give a special nod to relative newcomer Blythe Metz. She never gets to Brinke Stevens level crazy—it’s not really that kind of film—but you feel like she could.

The only real negative on this film for me was the stinger. The final battle makes everything as plain as need be as to what’s going to happen after the credits roll. The subsequent scene gilds the lily.

Although I’ve never read anything that mentions it, I think it’s apparent that the Evil Dead series was a big influence on Kanefsky. There are definitely worse influences to have.

After Dark 2007: Mulberry Street

Mulberry Street

“By the numbers” was probably the watchword for Day 2. Our second film, Mulberry Street, was a by-the-numbers modern zombie flick, only instead of zombies/ghouls, we have wererats.

But that description doesn’t really do this film justice. It excels in some ways and falls down in some others. First of all, this film is New York. Lower East Side, Bowery-type New York City. I’m no expert on the city, but it felt completely authentic to me.

The characters are drawn wonderfully, too. Co-writer Nick Damici plays ex-boxer Clutch, single father to war vet, the striking Kim Blair. The feminine touch in the parenting done by Coco (Ron Brice) a gay black man with feelings for Clutch, and no hidden resentment toward aging beauty queen Kay (Bo Corre). We have a cranky superintendent, a Vietnam war vet, an Anzio(!) war vet, and just buckets of local character.

This stuff is mostly lightly touched upon as the story unfolds of Manhattanites being infected by rats with a disease that turns them into flesh-hungry were-rats. That’s the good.

It’s so clearly New York, that the introduction in the middle of a long montage accompanied by a blaring folksy tribute to New York makes you want to say, “OK! We get it! It’s New York! It’s weird!”

But the thing that really sinks this film is its lack of focus. It’s sort of 28 Days Later in the Bowery. The rat-people are killing people for food, but in the worst tradition of the zombie flick, they’re also turning them into rat people, and only the needs of the plot determine who gets what treatment.

It’s really a shame, too. This is a movie you just want to be better. Apparently, it was made on $60,000, but I didn’t actually see that as it’s weakness. In fact, the video is made deliberately grainy and cheap looking to considerable effect.

It just needed a tighter plot.

After Dark 2007: Borderlands

Borderlands

We closed the first night with one of my least favorite genres: The crazy cult coming to cill, er, kill you genre. These were big in the ‘70s and were usually unpleasant affairs, both predictable and unsatisfying. They also tended to feature, as a “twist”, an actual appearance by Satan or some other demon at the end.

So I sat down to this one—which had a dismal 3.8 rating on IMDB—with more than a little trepidation. And the beginning is grotesque, probably the goriest thing we saw all weekend. Yet the movie holds together by being dedicated in its realism and tightly focused. (It claims to be “based on true events”.)

Brian Presley, Jeff Muxworthy and Rider Strong play three post-grads on a “last fling” to Mexico who fall afoul of a Santeria cult looking for, em, emotive contributors to their black magic. The cast is rounded out with excellent performances by Sean Astin (in an almost Dennis Hopper-ish role), and Mexican actors Damian Alcazar and the gorgeous Martha Higareda.

The cultists are menacing and arrogant, with my favorite being Marco Bacuzzi, who reminds very strongly of the great Michael Berryman. And yet, there’s no cheating: The director doesn’t try to straddle the line convincing you these guys are supernatural; he gives you the facts, and dares you to believe them.

The film is actually only marred by (God help me, I’m not making this up) a political statement. Muxworthy plays jerky, greedy, Republican Henry who hates the poor and can’t figure out why his friend Ed wants to go dig ditches in Malawi. He also talks trash and buckles when the pressure is on.

I suppose with Joe Dante’s shameless episode of “Masters of Horror” (“Homecoming”), even horror can’t be spared the daily grind of partisanship. But I have to wonder: With party enrollment dropping to all-time lows, does it really make sense to possibly alienate most of your audience? (I’m a decline-to-state and always have been, and I was appalled by the gratuitous slap.)

Besides, if he’d really been a Republican, he would have had a gun, right?

OK, enough stereotyping. Zev Berman is clearly a talented director with a good eye for story. Let’s hope he uses it to make good movies rather than making “important” movies.

This was Day 1 for us, and Borderlands ended it on a high note. Day 2 would be less enjoyable, unfortunately.

After Dark 2007: The Deaths of Ian Stone

The Deaths of Ian Stone

Probably my favorite premise of the festival: A man is killed by some sort of crazies/monsters, then wakes up in a new life, only to be killed by them again. And over and over. Groundhog Day, if the groundhog had a chainsaw and a bad attitude.

But in fact, this feels at first more like Dark City meets The Matrix, with some sort of alien force rearranging reality for some reason we are unable to fathom. Another thing that we’re unable to fathom is why Ian Stone is an American (Mike Vogel) living in London.

No, I guess that’s not really important but it does sort of stand out without ever being explained.

The middle of the movie drags a bit, as we get some torture of our hero, and some dominatrix-inspired costume changes for hot ‘n’ sexy Jaime Murray (best known to Americans as Dexter’s “anonymous” sponsor on Showtime’s Dexter).

The movie actually veers away from horror into more of an action style that reminded me more of “Buffy” and “Angel” than anything else, and I didn’t really care for that, but overall this was a fun flick.

After Dark 2007: Unearthed

Unearthed

Oh, won’t someone free the horror movie alien from the grip of H.R. Giger? Ever since Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, Alien, it seems like all malevolent aliens are slime dripping, mouth articulated, baroque-carapaced xenomorphs.

In this movie, the alien is mixed with a little bit of predator as well, though that aspect of the film isn’t strongly fleshed out. More strongly fleshed out is the overwrought plot, concerning hot ‘n’ sexy Emmanuelle Vaugier as the sheriff of a small town haunted by a terrible mistake in her past as hot ‘n’ sexy Tonantzin Carmelo does plant biology for Grandpa Russell Means (who’s apparently taking a break from delivering anti-pollution PSAs) while hot ‘n’ sexy blondes Beau Garret and Whitney Able breakdown after picking up hot ‘n’ sexy hitchhiker Tommy Dewey. Did I mention the hot ‘n’ sexy drug dealer/pimp Charles Q. Murphy who runs out of gas? No? Consider him mentioned.

Despite being awash in clichés and unlikelihoods, I was actually pretty impressed by this film at first. The cinematography exploited the beauty of the New Mexico setting (even if it was shot in Utah) and you can’t really complain about a horror flick putting a hot and sexy chick in a role, no matter how improbable the role.

And, in this case, Vaugier is reprising Ben Affleck’s role in Phantoms. Funny thing is that while she’s 31, which is a perfectly respectable age for a sheriff, she looks 20, and since she’s supposed to have hit the skids, she doesn’t really come off sheriff-like. I’d suggest this was a bad combination. It’s made worse by the fact that her backstory is just noise, unlike Affleck’s character in Phantoms.

And, seriously, why would anyone say, “Yeah, Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms! Let’s remake it with hot chicks!”

But they did and it almost works. There’s competent groundwork in the filming, editing and music. The story is, as mentioned, derivative and overwrought, but even that’s not really the death knell. The thing that kills this movie? The alien itself.

It’s a common problem with low-budget monster flicks and I hate to bash them for it but it’s truly disastrous. I think at some point they had a puppet-type alien, and where that is used, it’s okay, but whenever CGI is used to show the thing moving, it totally destroys the atmosphere. This is compounded by the fact that the creature isn’t running around in shadows but is mostly fully lit up.

So, it’s diminished by being an Alien rip-off to begin with, and knocked flat by being poorly animated, until all you’re left with is a mess of a story that rips off Phantoms, Alien and Predator.

Nonetheless, I was still optimistic going into the next film.