Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Hell Night – Review

Hell Night – Review

Oct 14, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Tom DeSimone, 1981
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The main reason I sought out Hell Night when it was first released was the presence of lead actress Linda Blair.  As ridiculous and horrible as John Boorman’s Exorcist II was, it was good enough to give teenage me a huge crush on Ms. Blair.  I still remember stumbling across the VHS release of Hell Night in the little video store that provided me with most of my cult cinema.  The lurid cover with a painting of the cleavage-showing Blair being dragged off a gothic metal gate by a pair of monstrous hands nearly leaped off the shelves and into my stack of weekend rentals.  Though I watched it often during the 80’s after securing my own copy, I hadn’t seen Hell Night in nearly twenty years when I noticed that it is one of the horror films available for streaming on Hulu.  That, plus the fact that I had dedicated myself to reviewing a coffin-load of films during October, lead me to re-visit this old favorite of mine to see how well it had aged.

Hell Night was one of the slasher films that took advantage of the hunger for the genre generated by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th,, but the set up for the film is straight out of the earlier horror-film tradition of the haunted-house flick.  Those films often involved a group of people convinced to spend a night in a house with an evil history for a big reward.  Here, four co-eds who are pledging a brother/sister fraternity and sorority are forced to stay in a mansion where a man, supposedly, killed himself after being unable to cope with a multitude of deformed, damaged children.  The prize for staying: membership in the respective Greek houses.  I, for one, would much rather have the cash prizes at the heart of most of these haunted-house flicks.

Our four co-eds are cut from familiar cloth: slut, jock, virgin (Blair), and nice guy.  Added to the potential victim list are the heads of the sorority and fraternity and the fraternity leader’s lapdog.  Of course, the idea is to scare the co-eds.  Also, of course, real threats soon reveal themselves.

It is hard to argue that Hell Night is a standout from the period or even that it is particularly good or original in any way.  Still, even stripped of my nostalgia for the early days of the genre (slashers, not horror), Hell Night is an enjoyable experience.  It has the giddy ultra-violent deaths that are the signature convention of the sub-genre, and they are done pretty well with glorious old-school technical trickery (I think I’ve seen too many digital ghosts lately).  I particularly like the film’s version of the Godfather’s horse head in the bed scene, and the chase through the tunnels under the house is claustrophobic and  convincing.

None of the leads stands out, though Blair exudes a kind of amused indifference during most of the scenes that says she knows that the film isn’t great but she’s enjoying the ride.  I also enjoyed the scenery-chewing, no-holds-barred performance of Vincent Van Patten.  His flip-out when he comes back to the room and finds a decapitated head in his bed is simply the most realistic reaction I’ve even seen in a horror film (Well, maybe second to Bill Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens).

I think fans of slasher films and pre-ironic horror will find a lot to like in Hell Night.  If I was making a list of the top 100 horror films of the 1980’s, it likely wouldn’t make the list, but it would be high up on the list of the films from the period that I enjoyed despite their flaws.  Let’s call it one of my guilty pleasures.

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Red State – Review

Red State – Review

Oct 10, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Kevin Smith, 2011
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It is always interesting to me when directors from outside the genre try their hand at horror films.  Which of the horror conventions will they adhere to?  Which ones will they re-interpret?  Will they come to the genre with enough of an understanding of its motifs and themes to produce a film that fans of the genre will embrace?  When the carpetbagging director is Kevin Smith, who has exclusively directed increasingly mainstream, raunchy comedies, things are even more interesting.  Red State, Smith’s first genre film, unfortunately, is a mixed bag.  It does a decent job at mimicking a recently popular horror sub-genre, but that sub-genre is close to played out even in the hands of experienced directors.  Sadly, what Smith brings in terms of humor and subversive point of view does little to raise the film above the level the typical direct-to-video horror film.  On a more positive note, there does seem to be a respect for the genre and Smith at no point seems to be slumming.  He saves his mocking tone for the “Christian” group at the heart of his exploitation piece.

Early in the film, we get a glimpse of the church people that are at the heart of the horror of Red State.  Clearly modeled on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, our protagonists see the church members protesting at the funeral of a gay teen, and we learn that most of the town sees the national attention they are bringing in as an embarassment.  As targets of satire and ridicule go, it’s hard to find more obvious and deserving ones than a group that regularly stages protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who have died serving their country.   When three teenage boys out for a night of debauchery fall into the hands of the church, we learn that insensitivity is far from their worst sin.

Targeting a fringe group as it does, Red State didn’t come off as nearly as anti-Christian as I expected it to be.  Most of the film’s anger is aimed directly at the Phelps stand-in, Pastor Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks.  Parks is brilliant here, giving one of the best performances is a horror movie that I’ve seen in years.  The performance is key as it keeps the film from being a shotgun blast at religion and instead makes it a sniper shot to the head of those that would use a cocktail of religion and charisma to lead their followers astray.

Parks’s performance aside, the best thing that can be said about the rest of the film’s actors is no one really embarrasses themselves.  I like John Goodman, but he is given so little of interest to say or do in the film that he blends in to the background.  The three teens that get themselves captured by the cult at the beginning of the film are competent, but interchangeable.

The direction and photography of the film are also simply average.  It is Smith’s best shot film to date, but that isn’t saying much.  The writing is, as we should expect, well above that of the average B-grade horror film.  Parks is given some great dialogue and nearly everyone gets off a couple of good lines, and Smith fights off what must have been a strong urge to put “funny” lines in the character’s mouths.  There is humor here, but it is satirical, ironic, and surprisingly subtle.

I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan and, obviously, a horror enthusiast.  I wanted Red State to be great, but it is simply average for a decently-budgeted, independent horror film.  It isn’t the catastrophe some critics accused it of being after the early screenings, but there isn’t much in Red State to recommend it over any other B-grade horror romp.

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Sick Girl (Masters of Horror) – Review

Sick Girl (Masters of Horror) – Review

Oct 8, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Lucky McKee, 2006
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Sick Girl is the name of an episode of the generally strong Masters of Horror television series from the Showtime cable network.  It aired originally on January 13, 2006. Sick Girl is another bizarre contribution from the creative teamwork of Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis.  Bettis is the star.  McKee is the writer and director.  Their previous two projects, the feature films May and Roman, are twisted stories of loneliness and alienation, themes found here as well.  Roman is extremely brutal emotionally with very little lightness to it, but May reveals their capacity for dark humor as well.  Sick Girl definitely plays for the humor.

Bettis plays Ida Teeter, an entomologist who has a habit of taking her work home with her.  Having an apartment filled with six-legged zoological specimens has a dampening effect on her love life.  Max Grubb, her fellow scientist, tells her that her job is the reason that she keep faltering romantically.  Ida likes girls and she has trouble because the dates she brings home are creeped out by the “bug thing.”  She has to choose between the babes or the bugs according to Max.

Another source of tension in the story is Ida’s boarding house landlady, Lana Beasley, who objects to Ida keeping live specimens in the house.  She’s afraid for the health and safety of her granddaughter, Betty, who continuously wears a ladybug costume.  Ida tries to assuage Lana’s fears.  “I promise you,” she says.  “My pets will never cause any trouble.”  Famous last words.

One day, Ida receives a mysterious package in the mail from Brazil that contains a huge unidentified insect. Shortly after its arrival, the mystery bug manages to escape from its container.  Later, Ida receives an anonymous letter warning her that the insect she received is dangerous, presumably from the same person who sent the critter in the first place.  The claims the letter makes about the insect’s habits are most extraordinary.  Max just laughs it off.

Meanwhile, lovelorn Ida is attracted to a hippie girl whom she sees drawing pictures of fairies on a sketchpad in the lobby of the building where she works.  After building up the courage to talk to the hippie girl, Ida learns that her name is Misty Falls.  Ida is instantly smitten.  “She’s the bee’s knees,” she tells Max.

When Ida brings Misty home for an evening of amore’, she hides all her pets in her bedroom because she’s worried about how Misty will react.  After an awkward evening, the two begin to become intimate on the living room couch, during which time the escaped exotic bug bites Misty in the ear.  As we know, this critter has unusual properties.  Misty starts immediately to feel unwell, a fact she tries to keep from Ida.  Misty begins to experience some kind of transformation.  You’ll have to see what happens for yourself.

The Masters of Horror episodes are hit-or-miss.  Most of them are pretty strong, just as you’d expect given the talented directors they draw from.  McKee and Bettis have a knack for bringing out the humor in horror without forgetting that the point of a horror picture is to scare and repulse.  This short film is a nice relief from the weightier works we’ve seen from them before, while incorporating the familiar themes of solitude and lovesickness they handle so well.  McKee, as a writer, definitely likes to explore boundary transgressions of the human body in his artwork.  The monstrous reveal at the end has hints of Cronenberg’s The Fly. Angela Bettis has the weird lonely girl role down pat.  I’m not usually a big fan of horror humor but this piece has enough weirdness to keep my interest.

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ATM – Review

ATM – Review

Oct 7, 2012

reviewed by Melissa
directed by David Brooks, 2012
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I sat down to watch ATM with zero knowledge about the film except that it takes place in an ATM enclosure. I was excited to view the film because I love movies that take place in one location, and every person I know has made at least one ill advised late night stop to the ATM. I was also delighted to discover Chris Sparling was the director of ATM, as I am a fan of his claustrophobic movie Buried.

ATM begins with three co-workers; Emily, David, and Cory; leaving a work Christmas party to go home. David has finally worked up the courage to ask Emily out and offers her a ride home. Cory, the ultimate jerk, talks David into giving him a ride home too. Cory decides he is hungry on the way home and needs to stop at the ATM to get cash for a pizza. They find an ATM that is a building that you must swipe your card for the door to open.  Cory’s ATM card does not work and David goes in to help, who is then followed by Emily.  Once all three of them are in the building they notice someone standing on the outside. The man, whose face we never see, begins to play a cat and mouse game with them that lasts throughout the rest of the night.

The premise of ATM was excellent but the execution has severe flaws. The acting was subpar at best with Alice Eve’s portrayal of Emily being completely unbelievable. Josh Peck plays Cory and does a decent job of being a real jerk if not a little bit over the top. Brian Geraghty is by far the strongest actor in the film, although he plays David a little too nice for my taste. The main problem I have with the movie is the characters make terrible decisions which only serve to extend the length of the film. The plot moves fairly slow and very predictable. I had figured out the ending twenty minutes into the movie. I was very disappointed in the film because I think the premise has great potential. I would not recommend this movie except to teach you a lesson about late night stopping at the ATM.

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Them – Review

Them – Review

Oct 5, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006
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The French-language film Them is a part of the seemingly rapidly growing horror sub-genre commonly referred to as home invasion movies.  There are older examples (Wait Until Dark, most importantly), but the genre really seemed to enter the public consciousness with Haneke’s infamous Funny Games (1997) which was remade in Hollywood by the same director ten years later and was controversial even then.  Them shares a number of plot elements and themes with Funny Games, but where Funny Games was a meditation on the influence of violent cinema, Them seems more of a concession to mankind’s animal natures and the banality of evil.

The film opens with a effective prologue wherein a mother and daughter are murdered after a minor car accident by unseen killers.  We don’t know who the killers are,, and we don’t know if they caused the accident on purpose or simply took advantage of weakened prey.  When Clem, a French expatriate teaching at a French-language school in Budapest, passes by the accident the next day, we know that whoever killed the mom and daughter are close by.  That is all the threat we need for the film  to start building its suspense.  We see Clem return to her dilapidated, isolated country home to her writer husband, Lucas.

It isn’t long before the couple is under attack.  As they attempt to fight off the intruders, Clem is revealed to be vastly more competent and quick-thinking than her husband. Lucas is a man of words, not actions and is soon nearly incapacitated, but Clem quickly recognizes the danger they are in and starts to formulate an escape plan.  It was nice to see the role of protector and helpless victim reversed for much of the film.

Once the killers are on the scene, Them becomes a tense chase film that gave me the kind of nervous expectation of the worst possible outcome that I got from Spielberg’s tight chase film, Duel. The pursuers in Them remain faceless for most of the film, as seems to be a common theme in home invasion horror films.  More than their facelessness, I was disturbed with the killers’ lack of voices.  The film has very little in the way of a score or soundtrack, but the sound-design gives us a world filled with creepy noises (creaking doors, screeching animals, slamming doors, the white noise of a television).  It is, however, the bug-like clicking sound made by one the killers that really got under my skin.  It kind of sounded like a man calling a dog, but more mechanical and inhuman (tick-tick-tick-tick-tick).  We learn late in the film how the killers are making the noise, but that revelation makes the sound more creepy, not less.

Them doesn’t have the most controversial elements of Funny Games because the focus is on the chase, not the torture and psychological terrorism of the victims.  Still, once the killers are revealed, the film forces us to ask serious questions about society and human nature. I have seen it suggested that the film is an allegory about the fears French people have of their “primitive” neighbor Romania.  There are certainly some stranger-in-a-strange-land tropes, but considering that the fake “based on a true story” elements claim to be about a an Austrian couple in France, it seems more likely that the film is a response to and iteration on concepts from Funny Games, an Austrian film about a German family in Austria.

I highly recommend Them. The film is intense from start to finish and has a deep and disturbing theme that I can’t really talk about without spoiling the ending.  I think it is safe to say that, like many horror films, Them argues that human beings capable of awful violence are all around us and that we may never understand what drives someone to kill, especially if what drives them is simply boredom.

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