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Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark – Review

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark – Review

Aug 29, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Troy Nixey, 2011
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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a 2011 horror film written and produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey.  It is a remake of the 1973 made for television movie of the same name.  The film has a rather eerie 19th century beginning where Emerson Blackwood, a famous artist who owns a beautiful mansion, lures his maid into the basement and promptly knocks her teeth out using a hammer and a flat edged tool of some kind.  We quickly learn that the teeth are for the fairy/goblin like creatures hiding in his furnace who are whispering to him and holding his son as ransom.  They want children’s teeth, not maid’s teeth, and both he and his son ending up perishing.

Fast forward to the present where a father, his girlfriend, and his daughter are moving into the huge house so that he can restore it and hopefully land on the cover of Architectural Digest.  Sally, the daughter, is unhappy about her living conditions as her mother has “shipped” her off to live with her father.  Alex’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) tries to befriend the Sally, but finds out that it will take time to earn her trust.  Soon, the goblin creatures lure Sally into the basement and although she initially thinks they might be friends, she learns that they are evil little creatures who want her teeth.   Meanwhile, Kim is becoming more and more sensitive to Sally’s pleas for help while Alex can only concentrate on his career.  The film climaxes with a “final battle” between the creatures and Sally, ultimately taking the life of Kim but failing to kill Sally and Alex.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a beautifully shot film with memorable direction and gobs of atmosphere.  The opening title sequence is gorgeous and the 19th century scene at the beginning of the film sets a creepy and exciting tone for the remainder of the film.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up.  This is because of two reasons:

First, the creatures are bland.  Nixey (and perhaps del Toro) reveal a full visual of the creatures fairly early in the film.  Although I applaud them for their willingness to show the antagonist in its full form (something del Toro does all the time), I can’t help but being underwhelmed by the revelation.  The creatures look like a humpback piranha with feet.  After the audience is shown the little monsters, they really no longer create any kind horrific expectation.  In other words, you aren’t hiding your eyes in fear that the creatures might pop back on the screen.

Second, the filmmakers utilize whispers extensively throughout the film.  The creatures use whispers to communicate to Sally and although it seems like the concept might work initially, it soon gives way to cheesiness.  Incredibly predictable things like “we want you down here” and “they always come back” are the whispers we are privy to.

Bailee Madison does give a solid performance as Sally and we find a theme in her suffering that del Toro has shown us before; we see something similar in Pan’s Labyrinth.  The movie is enjoyable and worth the viewing time but does not live up to its potential.

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Quarantine 2 – Review

Quarantine 2 – Review

Aug 26, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by John Pogue, 2011
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Quarantine 2 has one of the odder trips to the screen in recent memory and much of that journey turns off hardcore horror fans.  The original Quarantine was a near shot-for-shot remake of the excellent Spanish zombie film REC.  Quarantine shared so much of the original film’s vision and style, and came so closely on the heels of REC, that horror fans were up in arms.  “Why does Hollywood think we are so stupid we can’t appreciate a film with subtitles?”  It didn’t help that there were a number of solid foreign horror films getting the Hollywood makeover about that time.  Quarantine became a lightning rod for the negativity.   Now, Sony Pictures and director John Pogue bring us a sequel, and it isn’t based on the Spanish film REC 2 but is, instead, an original sequel to the US remake.  What a mess.  Expectations for the film dropped even lower when Sony decided to release the film direct-to-video and not even give it a token theatrical run.  I enjoyed the first film, and I thought in some ways it improved on REC, though it wasn’t as good a film overall, and I went into my viewing of Quarantine 2 with as open a mind as possible given the film’s history.  What I discovered was a solid low-budget “zombie” movie with a unique, interesting setting.  It isn’t ground-breaking by any means, but Quarantine 2 is definitely worth the price of a rental.

Quarantine 2’s plot runs in parallel with the events in Quarantine, but that isn’t obvious at the start of the film.  The film opens by introducing us to two flight attendants who are on their way to the airport for a flight.  The two characters are one-hundred percent cliché (one is a bit easy, the other has a father who tried to pressure her into being a pilot), but they are attractive and likeable enough to make for good protagonists (and potential zombie fodder).  Once on the airplane, we are introduced to one cliché character after another: a kid with divorced parents who is flying between them and trying to appear tougher than he is; an elderly woman and her Parkinson’s stricken, wheelchair bound, husband; an aggressive businessman who won’t turn off his cell phone; a portly passenger too fat to fit in the standard seatbelt, another older woman with a cat in her handbag, and a few more not worth mentioning.

The only passenger of any real interest is an elementary school teacher carrying a hamster cage.  Now, anyone who has seen the first film will know that the “hamsters” (and the cats for that matter) are going to be important.  The teacher is quickly revealed to be the male protagonist as the horror elements in the plot are introduced.  Those events are pretty predictable in light of the first film’s plot, but the setting is novel enough to build up tension and suspense.  Hey, it’s a zombie outbreak on a plane.  It would be hard to make that boring.

And Quarantine 2, even after it leaves the nicely claustrophobic plane and moves into an abandoned airline terminal (which is still novel but really could just be any nearly-empty warehouse),  isn’t boring.  There is a good deal of suspense, a little mystery, and a healthy amount of gruesome deaths.  Anyone who is not totally turned off by the film’s ancestry* should find it to be an enjoyable horror film.

* Speaking of the animosity out there in the horror community, I find it interesting that this film has an 83% positive rating from critics on Rottentomatoes.com but only a 4.5/10 average from the users at IMDB.  Considering that it is pretty rare for a low-budget horror film to have a positive critical response, I have to think the regular viewers responses are a little skewed because of the whole REC/Quarantine controversy.

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The Strangers – Review

The Strangers – Review

Aug 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2008
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The Strangers is a 2008 “home invasion” movie starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman.  After turning down a marriage proposal, Kristen (Tyler) accompanies a distressed James (Speedman) back to an isolated house where he had earlier decorated with an abundance of rose petals anticipating a “yes” to the big question.  Why they thought it would be a good idea to follow through with a plan to spend a weekend in the middle of nowhere together after such an alarming denial to marriage is beyond me.  But, they finally arrive at the house.  When James heads back out to pick Kristen up some cigarettes at 4 in the morning (really?), she is visited by three weird strangers and the terror begins.  They torment her, toy with her, and give up endless opportunities to kill just to keep up the fun.  James returns from the store and the rest of the movie is them trying to keep their sanity and their lives.  The movie ends with the couple finally being tied up in a couple of chairs, stabbed a few times, and then killed.

If my above summary of the film lacked any kind of gusto, it is because I found the movie to be dull, slow, and pointless.  The strangers just draw out their torment of the couple for way too long.  About 15 times throughout the film, there will be a “stranger” behind Kristen, easily ready to kill her, tie her up, slap her, poke her in the eye, or anything, but instead they decide to run away, disappear, and then reappear for a similar “scare.”  It just gets repetitive really fast.  The direction was good, but the couple just does too many silly things.  For example, they receive perfect cell phone service in the house (which was refreshing, the writers didn’t opt for the “no service” angle), but their cell phone dies.  Not to worry, Kristen has a charger!  But for some inexplicable reason, when she plugs the charger into the phone and into an outlet, she doesn’t turn it on to make the call!  It is as if she doesn’t realize that cell phones operate just fine while they are plugged in and charging.  Little thing like that add up to a fairly high annoyance level.  The pay off isn’t a pay off at all and the ending leaves us scratching our heads – did we really just watch 1 hour of senseless “teasing” for a lifeless, emotionless finish?  Yes.  Yes we did.

Unless you are just a die-hard home invasion freak, this one is very much avoidable.  Not terrible, but not good.

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Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Aug 4, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Jon Favreau, 2011
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Several years ago, I started reading a novel about an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Portugal in the Middle Ages.  The townspeople had no frame of reference to interpret their visitors as beings from another planet.  The benighted humans thought the advanced technologies of the spacemen must either be the results of sorcery or divine mediation.  For one reason or another, I never had the chance to finish that book before I had to return it to the library.  I can no longer remember what it was called or who wrote it and haven’t been able to track it down to complete it.

I’m not sure if the book was any good or not, but the premise was very sticky.  The concept of space aliens visiting earth in a time other than the modern one has a lot of untapped potential.  I’m sure there were some episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek that explored this thought.  It’s an underlying concept for Battlestar Gallactica. And who hasn’t heard about the theories of Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods?  But I can’t recall a major motion picture that has dwelt on it.

How would people from times past react to advanced technology?  Though realism is not the first word that comes to mind with this film, it does strike me as genuine that the townspeople initially plug the aliens into their worldview.  They used the only vocabulary they had, wondering if their extraordinary assailants were demons.

Cowboys and Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Keith Carradine.  You can see that the cast is something special.  It even has Sam Rockwell in an all too bland supporting role.  If they could have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson or Robert Downey Jr., it would have been perfect!

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (“Loner” – gan) who wakes up at the beginning of the movie lying in the desert, shoeless, wounded, with a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no memory.  He quickly establishes himself as a man not to be messed with.  Having made his way to town, he finds himself at odds both with the sheriff, played by Keith Carradine and the big-shot rancher tycoon played by Harrison Ford.  This is the best role I’ve seen Ford play in years.

When the town is attacked by flying machines which rope random residents and rustle them away, the guys in the black hats and the guys in the white hats determine to work together, form a posse, and to try to rescue their kinfolk.  Other directors might have utilized energy beams to zap their captives up, but the use of the lasso was a nice western touch.

The men are helped by the always strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson.  As a side note, Olivia Wilde may be the new go-to action movie chic.  Consider Tron and now this.  She doesn’t yet have the fighting cred of Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt).  But she’s a step above the token eye-candy girlfriend who is otherwise pointless to the plot (ie. Megan Fox in Transformers).  Jennifer Garner hasn’t done action in years, so maybe Wilde is the up-and-comer.  Have you started taking Karate lessons yet Liv?

Craig and Ford are the narrative focal points, and Wilde to a lesser extent.  All three of them are more than they first appear.  Wilde is in a category all her own, about which I’ll say no more.  Neither of the fellas is exactly admirable.  The preacher could have been talking about either one when he uttered this astute observation: “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.”  Are our heroes bad or good?  Both of them experience a change by the end of the picture.  Their sufferings and their losses are redemptive.

Most of the jabbering in the press is about the genre-bending mashup of the western and science fiction.  There’s at least one other genre that should get factored into the equation: horror.  If you think a move called Cowboys and Aliens sounds like kid’s stuff, be careful.  This is not a movie for little children.  The monsters are genuinely frightening at times and truly revolting all the time.  There are several jump scares and there are scenes of torture and grisly violence.  Alien abductions constitute a spooky sub-genre of horror and this movie goes there (cf. Fire in the Sky (1993) and The Fourth Kind (2009) et al.).

One moment struck me as particularly poignant.  When Craig finds the pile of gold watches and other personal items of abductees, it resembled a scene from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  The nazis collected the valuables of the concentration camp prisoners into piles.  This hints at the possibility of genocide or human extinction.  It also suggests that otherworldly monsters are not the only ones we need to worry about.  I realize I’m reading between the lines, but I don’t think I’m pressing the imagery too far.

In earlier decades, filmmakers faced what they called the “monster problem.”  That is to say, you had to have a creature that looked real enough to produce the intended effect.  You didn’t want to get everyone all geared up to see a nasty beastie, only to reveal a man in a rubber suit.  Having people laugh at your monster is not desirable.  Personally, I prefer old-school physical special effects whenever possible, but there are limits to what you can do without CGI.  C&A utilized both to the optimum effect.

There were many moments that called to mind sci-fi films that preceded it.  The abductees returning, for instance, reminded me of a similar moment in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  A hat tip to Steven Spielberg, one of the several top shelf executive produces of C&A?

Cowboys and Aliens is a fun adventure.  So many things about it make it cooler than other blockbusters this summer, not the least of which is the cast.  Jon Favreau, the director, is not known for helming subtle thinky pictures, but he does know how to punch you the face with a good time.

What we have here is primarily a blistering fun time, not a message movie.  But if you will indulge this reviewer, one moral of this story seems to be that people can change.  It might just be that we need an impending global catastrophe to get us to wake up.  When the threat is great enough, even cowboys and indians will put aside their differences and work together.  Don’t waste your days on things that don’t matter.  Chasing gold is futile.  Family counts.  Community counts.  Even religious faith is given a nod.  And learn to give your brother a chance.  The town is named Absolution after all.

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Body Count #1111

Body Count #1111

Aug 3, 2011

An incredibly fun podcast where Hallo and Skot discuss the new book by Jason Zinoman called “Shock Value” and also discuss the Masters of Horror film “The Washingtonians” directed by Peter Medak – the discussion takes a surprising turn.

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