I didn’t want to. But I had to. James Cameron’s Avatar is undoubtedly the hugest movie of the year and maybe even the decade. And, you know, I enjoyed Titanic, despite the length. So, I figured I’d enjoy this, despite the flaws.

This movie is a marvel: It manages to be simultaneously amazing and boring at the same time.
Technologically, it’s amazing. The 3D—I haven’t seen the new 3D at all, so this is my first encounter with it—really works. 3D doesn’t generally work well for me, as my right eye is significantly weaker than my left, so I usually end up with an uncomfortable feeling in my head. On top of the whole thing not being very impressive.
This works. The Boy and I both closed one eye at various points and agreed that it seemed to be pretty deep looking, even with one eye.
Even more, the CGI doesn’t suck. I think we can all agree, at this point, that CGI sucks, big time. I mean, it’s a great way—and the only reasonable way—to achieve certain effects. Some things just aren’t possible without it. But it’s overused. And usually painfully obvious. Except for a few scenes where the aliens interact with humans, it’s seamless here. Though this is really due in part to the movie being almost entirely CGI, Cameron’s standards have always been incredibly high.
So, as you’re swooping around on WTF-the-planet’s-name-is you really feel like you’re riding on the back of a WTF-that-is, with your hot alien WTF girlfriend.
When James Cameron was a kid in Junior High school, he had all these great ideas. Unfortunately, he never grew out of them. Or ever even remotely challenged them. Or apparently even thought about them long enough to realize how crusty they had become.
This movie is so predictable, you know within the first 5 minutes of meeting every character not only whether they’re a good guy or a bad guy, but how they’re going to die. It’s almost as if Cameron’s never seen one of his own movies, even.
All your favorite James Cameron characters are here: There’s the tough-as-nails marine sergeant (think Apone from Aliens), and the bitchy-but-competent scientist (Mastroantonio from The Abyss), the macho Hispanic chick (played by, heh, Jenette Goldstein and a lot of makeup in Aliens), the sort of bland quiet-but-noble hero one suspects may be Cameron’s own avatar (played by Michael Biehn in both Terminator and Alien, Schwarzeneggar in True Lies) and the evil corporate guy (Paul Reiser in Aliens). It doesn’t really matter so much that Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington and Giovanni Ribisi are in those roles here.
Well, Weaver’s always great. And Giovanni Ribisi stands out, too. But they’re just archetypes. No need to, you know, flesh them out or anything. Part of the problem is that the dumb marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, who didn’t overly impress in Terminator: Salvation), is supposed to provide the dramatic tension by being torn between his human life and his life among the Native Americans (Navi, for short) and his marine commander’s assurance that he’ll get his legs back (yeah, he lost them in battle) if he cooperates with The Company’s Evil Plan.
Yeah. You feelin’ that tension? Me, neither. We’ve already established he’s a Good Guy. Also, he immediately falls in love with his giant, functioning Navi body.
Wait! Did I forget to say what the plot was? OK, a distant planet has a rare resource—the bastard actually calls it unobtanium as if to rub our noses in the cliché—and the peaceful and nature-loving natives just happen to live right over it. Company Man Ribisi wants to relocate the Indians but barring that, he’ll just blow them up. Worthington plays the crippled grunt whose identical-twin-ship makes him the only person suitable to use his late identical twin brother’s avatar—a laboratory grown genetic mashup of human and Navi—to act as missionaries among the natives.
Now, look, you don’t go to a Cameron movie looking for original stories, any more then you’d go to Stephen King or Shakespeare for them. There aren’t really any original stories, and only a few that really manage to feel that way, so there’s no shame in recycling. But doesn’t it just make ya go, “Come on!?!?”
Still, same plot as Aliens (minus the avatar part which, I guess, isn’t trivial), which was a great action flick. What kills this for me? The clichés are wrapped in a huge ol’ layer of self-indulgent, almost masturbatory fantasy about the beautiful natives. (Almost? I’m being kind here.) The movie spends, literally, an hour in panoramas of swooping around on dragons, marveling in its own beauty, native orgiastic dances (that remind unpleasantly of the second Matrix movie), while sort of contradictorily lingering lovingly over the evil tech war machines that are going to destroy them.
So, yeah, an hour less movie (running time is 2:45) would’ve been a lot easier to stomach.
But it would have also helped if the damn thing didn’t get right in your face and slap you with the stupid. But it does. A lot. The Navi are larger than humans, and their bones have a natural “carbon fiber” built in or something. But they’re stone age people. And they’re up against a civilization with faster-than-light technology.
At one point, Lang is concerned because, OMG, there might be as many as 20,000 Navi converging on them. Give me 10 guys with machine guns and enough bullets and I’ll take on the 20,000 aboriginals. But they have way more than 10 guys. It looks like they have hundreds. And they have these super-duper flying machines. Explosives enough to destroy an entire mountain. Missiles by the gobs. Oh, and those cool waldos, like in Aliens, but with lots of military goodies attached, instead of just crate loaders.
They do have one weakness however: Nobody thought to make the glass in these super-military devices arrow proof. I’m pretty sure the windshield of my ‘91 Geo Metro is arrow-proof. Also, nobody wears any kind of protective vest. In fact, even the windows of the various human outposts aren’t particularly tough, even though it’s death to breathe the alien world air.
That’s toward the end, but it surprised me with its stupidness. I mean, you kind of need some stupid to have a story, because what an Evil Corporation would do is simply wipe the planet out from space. Carpet bombing to clear anything that got in there way. Right? (The movie makes a little nod to what they can and can do by suggesting there are PR issues, but that’s not an explanation that bears much scrutiny.)
But the movie starts out with a whole heaping dump truck full of ignorance, too. Cameron’s view of the Marine Corps isn’t just that they’re bad-ass, but that they’re largely without honor, so that your average marine would transition from fighting to defend his country to fighting for a mining company without even noticing the difference.
And then, there’s the whole Avatar concept. While linked with your avatar, your human body is unconscious, though you can be woken up. When not linked with it, your avatar is unconscious and unrousable.
Anyone wanna guess what the life-expectancy of the average stone-age person is if they couldn’t get up at night?
This actually comes up at one point, but the assumption is that—despite the packs of deadly animals—it’s perfectly fine to leave your giant, tasty blue body lying around the rain forest at night.
And Cameron’s understanding of how such primitive tribes actually lived seems to have stopped with a viewing of Dances With Wolves. (Yeah, this movie is sort of Dances With Smurfs.) Males and females—hated, mistrusted, alien males, that is, are just, you know, hanging out with, like, the shaman’s daughter, all casual-like.
Their entire social structure seems to consist of, y’know, like, hangin’ out, listening to the forest, and, uh, linking arms and dancing in front of the sacred tree.
Once again, archetypes. No need to flesh them out. Smelly Ugly Western Europeans = Evil. Non-showering-but-still-lemon-fresh Blue Aliens = Good.
Meh. I could go on and on (and on and on and on) but the overall effect of the movie is that of a guy who’s just really enamored with his own juvenile creation, both in terms of a beautiful, symbiotic biological ecosystem, and a shallow, ugly straw-man-of-a-representation of the society that makes it possible for him to spend $500M to make movies.
The Flower liked it. That’s about right. I would expect eight-year-old girls to react to this movie the way they do to unicorns and pegasi. The Boy, The Old Man and I just rolled our eyes and talked about the technology. (I’m very careful about letting the youngsters enjoy their movies, no matter how stupid.)
But I really can’t recommend it. At two hours shorter, it would’ve been a kind of fun and exciting technology demo. At one hour shorter, it would’ve been a tolerable, but predictable movie. At its current length, it’s an unrelenting exercise in stupidity dressed up in top-flight production values.
In the words of Dorothy Parker, there is less here than meets the eye. It’ll win some Oscars, but I’d put it in my bottom ten for 2009.

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.

Crazy Heart

A washed up Country Western star struggles to repair the shambles of his life. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it with Robert Duvall? Oh, wait, yeah, we have: Tender Mercies. We’ve also seen it with Clint Eastwood (Honkeytonk Man), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk The Line) and Willie Nelson (Honeysuckle Rose). Just to name four others off the top of my head.

Ah, well, Duvall has just a small role in this one, but I swear, I thought the audience was going to applaud when he showed up. Duvall’s pushing 80, but apparently he’s having whatever Eastwood’s having; he looked great!
Mostly, though, this is all about Jeff Bridges. The movie starts with him playing in a bowling alley, and I so wanted to hear him say, “Yeah, well, the Dude abides.” But there’s no Dude in this similarly alcoholic down-on-his-luck character.
There’s no way for me to talk about this without gushing. Bridges rocks. He always has. At least as far back I can remember. He’s one of the few actors I’ll go see a movie just because he’s in it. (I almost went to see Door in the Floor and Men Who Stare At Goats for him.) He’s one of these actors who is not quite a chameleon, changing his looks and speech for every role, but also not a “movie star”, who plays the same guy every time.
In this movie, he plays Bad Blake (ahem), a guy who’s been killing himself slowly over decades. His songwriting skills have earned him some money from being performed by hot, new singer Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell—that Irish guy does good accents!), but he’s hit the skids and not writing, while Sweet basks in the limelight.
At the very bottom, he meets Jean Craddock (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, probably best met at the very bottom) and her 4-year-old son, and sort of latches on to them, as they fill a (self-created) void in his life.
I think it’s a testament to Bridges that the relationship between the 60-year-old Blake and 30-something Jean seems plausible. The writing, I think, is on the money, too. Bad Blake sees them as a chance at redemption, a way to turn his life around.
I give Gyllenhaal credit, too. After being horribly miscast in The Dark Knight, and constantly typecast as quirky characters, she does a good job as a single mom who’s really trying hard not to fall for a guy who is, quite clearly, trouble.
I liked the ending. It’s not Hollywood. But it’s not a big up-yours-life-sucks indie ending, either.
I also kind of liked the music. It was very simple, with quite a bit of rhythm and blues in with the traditional country feel.
Watching the movie, I thought that Bridges doesn’t have the singer/songwriter stage charisma to pull it off, but I realized I was comparing him to Loudon Wainwright, who is sort of the ne plus ultra of one-man-shows (and who doesn’t play bowling alleys).
Took my dad with me on this one. He loved it, maybe more than I did. The Boy? Not so much. He’s not much into music. (Yeah, I don’t get it, either.) He’s not so familiar with Jeff Bridges, though he liked his performance. But it’s a grownup movie.
Anyway, this is the fifth Oscar nomination for Bridges. And it’d be a worthy win.
Now I just need to knuckle-down and go see Avatar and I can give you my best of 2009 list. So far I can say it’s gonna be tough to find 10 movies worthy of being on any top 10….

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.