Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Monster – Review

The Monster – Review

Jan 31, 2017

reviewed by Scott
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2016
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The Monster is a 2016 creature feature written and directed by Bryan Bertino, starring Zoe Kazan as Kathy and Ella Ballentine as Lizzy.

Kathy is the alcoholic single mother of Lizzie, a girl who is about ten years old. Kathy looks so young that she could not have been too much older than that when she had Lizzie. As is often the case in such scenarios, Lizzie is like the real parent in the family. We are introduced to them with scenes of Lizzie cleaning up the house trashed from her mother’s partying. Lizzie has to get her mom out of bed so they can make a trip after packing for the two of them. Though in some ways, she is the caregiver, she is also emotionally stunted by their domestic trauma and clings throughout to a stuffed bear that sings nursery rhymes. The opening sequences are effective and prepare us for what is best about this movie.

After the first act, the troubled relationship between Kathy and Lizzie is further related in flashbacks. The mother/daughter tension is the heart of this film. In fact, I want to see the movie of them without the creature. But we are not so lucky. The bulk of the action takes place while they are on their way to take Lizzie to her dad’s place, perhaps for good when they hit a wolf and the car is disabled. In the woods. At night. During a storm. The rest of the picture is them being stalked by a snarling thing and their fight to survive. Rescue almost comes a couple of times but, in the end, the women must try to save themselves.

I had hoped we were in for a complex multi-layered personal drama which happened to coincide with a monstrous encounter that typified the relationship between the main characters. The good news is that is we do get glimpses of such a story. But the bad news is that so many other things are executed poorly. The creature plot is predictable and boring. The music is noticeably underwhelming. For a film entitled The Monster, the actual titular beast was fairly unscary. The image in the movie poster is more chilling than its – at times – laughable appearance in the film. Initially, I was reminded of the introduction of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. A rainy night with two hapless victims trapped in their car being terrorized by a razor-fanged uber-lizard. But instead of a realistic dinosaur, we get a man in a rubber suit. 1950s Japan is calling. They want their Godzilla costume back.

The high points, on the other hand, are the performances. Both actresses are clearly talented but Zoe Kazan was pretty brilliant, especially in the flashback scenes. The most suspenseful scene was her trying to talk herself out of taking a drink. And the most shocking scene was how she treats her daughter when her good-for-nothing boyfriend storms out of the house. The most beautiful scene, and heart-wrenching, was the flashback at the end. As I said, this is the movie I would rather have seen. High fives to Bryan Bertino for showing that addiction is truly monstrous. Too bad about the guy in the rubber suit though.

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Haunted Honeymoon – Review

Haunted Honeymoon – Review

Jan 29, 2017

reviewed by Philip
directed by Gene Wilder, 1986
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I love this movie. Yes, it was nearly universally panned by critics and fans alike and currently holds a 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I was captivated by it from the beginning. I found it to be genuinely scary at times (I was only 10 during my first viewing) and also found it to be quite funny. The film is certainly not able to compete with Wilder’s classic gems, such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, but there are nevertheless some wonderful “Gene” moments scattered throughout.

Larry Abbot (Wilder) and Vickie Pearle (Gilda Radner) are radio actors who are getting married. Unfortunately, Larry has been getting stage-fright that causes him unable to speak his lines correctly. They decide to get married in the huge castle where he grew up and when they travel to the site, Vickie is able to meet Larry’s family, including his great-aunt Kate portrayed by Dom DeLuise in drag. Larry’s uncle, Dr. Paul Abbot, believes Larry needs shock therapy to scare him out of his newly formed stage fright, so after letting the other family in on the secret, they begin playing tricks and stunts on Larry. Unfortunately, the horror becomes all too real when one of Larry’s cousins wants him dead.

I can remember being fascinated by Dr. Abbot’s special effects and the way they attempted to scare Larry. Lightning machines, levitation pulleys, werewolf costumes, and downright frightening masks (like the one below) kept me on the edge of my seat. Another one of Larry’s cousins, named Susan, was married to a world-renowned magician who also brought some creepiness into the film, including the ability to make his eyes glow! Throw in the fact that Larry ended up being buried alive, which has been intriguing to me since I read about magician Harry Houdini’s buried alive stunt when I was a kid, and this movie has all the right ingredients for atmospheric fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The cast is also fantastic. When you have Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, Dom DeLuise, and Jonathan Pryce leading the charge, you can safely assume some fun is in the works. A routine that has been done several times before in movies just so happens to be one of the best when Wilder pretends that a pair of legs that are not his own actually belong to him in order to get some police officers off his back. No one can do this kind of comedy like Wilder.

But, the movie has all kinds of flaws. The comedy is definitely cliched, there is no believability to the film, and the performances are less-than-average for this incredibly gifted cast. And yet, at the end of the day, there is just something about it that keeps me smiling. Unfortunately, this would be Radner’s final film before her untimely death.

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The Invitation – Review

The Invitation – Review

Jul 26, 2016

reviewed by Scott
directed by Karyn Kusama, 2015
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You are invited to witness this angsty psychological thriller that’ll rip your heart out.  The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama who also helmed Girlfight and the horror comedy, Jennifer’s Body.  Brilliantly written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, The Invitation premiered at the 2015 SXSW film festival.

Most of us have been to parties where we felt out-of-place.  And some of us have been in social settings where things are going fine until the train stops unexpectedly at crazy town.  If you can relate and even if you can’t, The Invitation will put you there.

Will, the lead character, is played by Logan Marshall-Green.  It’s an emotionally complex role that he pulls off expertly.  He is summoned with his new girlfriend, Kira, to the home of his ex-wife, Eden, who is hosting a dinner party with her new husband.  Right off the bat, Will and Kira experience a disturbing mishap on the way which is the first indication that this picture is about some seriously damaged people.  Once there, they are met by a group of Will and Eden’s old friends whom they haven’t seen in ages, along with some mysterious new faces.  The film unsettles us with clues and misdirections, which it neutralizes with intermittent normalness.  Every dire signal has a sensible explanation.  When you hear hoofbeats, don’t immediately think of zebras.  Think of horses.  Yeah, but…

Will is in no mood for a party at the house he used to share with his ex and their son.  Will and Eden, we learn, divorced in the aftermath of their young son’s tragic death and both of them have had trouble moving on.  Eden claims to have found a way to be free from all negative emotions, but Will is skeptical . . . about everything.  Why is Eden acting so spacey?  Where is their missing friend?  Why is the door locked?  Who are these new people?  As Will’s paranoia grows to epic proportions, certain things fail to add up for the viewer too.  Someone at this party is clearly bonkers; it’s just not clear who.

The dinner-party-from-hell micro-subgenre is only as good as the supporting cast.  In this case, The Invitation is pure perfection.  Everyone seems so normal except for the little things.  Like a slightly tilted painting over the fireplace, there is just something off.  Like Hitchcock’s Rope, this creepy delight would work well as a stage play too.  Avoid the trailer.  The less you know, the better.

Some critics of the film will say that it just moves too slowly, but the pace is perfect in my estimation.  It is a slow burn but with just enough suppressed violence and emotion to keep you on edge.  Be assured there is plenty of pay off before it’s done.  Fans of unexpected chills and bizarreness will be rewarded.  If you need wall-to-wall action, you’ll probably find your mind wandering until, well, just until.  But if you like your chillers marinated slowly and packing a hidden punch to the gut, this is one film not to miss.

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Rubber – Review

Rubber – Review

Feb 18, 2014

reviewed by Philip
directed by Quentin Dupieux, 2010
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Rubber is a self-proclaimed homage to “no reason.” At the beginning of the film we meet Chad, a California sheriff who describes one thing that virtually all movies have in common to one degree or another – no reason. Why is E.T. brown? No reason. Why was JFK shot? No reason. This, he says, is the reason Rubber was created. No reason.

We discover there are two audiences watching the movie. Us, the audience watching a screen, and an assembled group of people in the movie itself who are handed a set of binoculars in a California dessert. Presumably, we are watching the same series of events unfold. And what might those be?

Oh you know, just your average horror movie stuff. An old tire in the middle of a garbage dump comes to life for no reason and begins running over things. First it is just a bottle and other kinds of trash, but then it moves on to living things, like a scorpion. When it discovers that it cannot break a certain glass bottle, the tire discovers it posses a certain kind of psychokinetic power and blows it up. Well, the sky’s the limit now, and the tire begins blowing up rabbits, humans, and anything else in its way.

The only plot to speak of is when the tire becomes infatuated with a woman who is staying at a hotel. After blowing up the motel manager’s head, the police begin a tire hunt. For no reason, the audience inside the film are all poisoned and killed, except from one guy in a wheelchair who did not eat the poisoned food. The tire is eventually shot by Chad, but is reincarnated as a tri-cycle that ends up killing the man in the wheel chair.

No, I’m not kidding.

This is definitely not a good movie and I certainly can’t recommend it, but I do find the premise to be intriguing. Does the presupposition guiding the movie even hold up? Was E.T. brown for no reason? Was JFK shot for no reason? Perhaps not good reasons, but there are reasons nevertheless. What Rubber tries to do is pretend it doesn’t care about what really makes movies entertaining and attempts to be stylistic and smart. As is so often the case, the smarter we think we are, the dumber we become.

The fascinating aspect of Rubber is the connection it has with a secular humanist worldview. The film dares you to try and make sense of what is happening and that is very thing each of us will do because we are hard wired to connect the dots. But it has already given you the answer – there is no reason to the film. This is secular humanism in a nutshell. Such a worldview attempts to take admittedly random things and create joy, purpose, and significance out them. But really, they make as much sense as a tire coming back to life with psychokinetic powers.

All in all, Rubber is a film you wish you would have never watched and only should be watched on a portable digital device if you are stuck in a bus for a few hours. Other than that, forget about it.

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Black Death – Review

Black Death – Review

Jan 30, 2014

reviewed by Philip
directly by Christopher Smith, 2011
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Black Death is a German produced 2011 adventure/horror film directed by Christopher Smith. The movie follows an envoy of medieval soldiers, led by knight Ulric (Sean Bean), on order from the bishop of the Church to locate a remote village that has strangely been unaffected by the black plague pandemic. When the envoy stops at a monastery to ask directions, a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) quickly volunteers to lead them to the village. His reasons are less than altruistic. Osmund’s lover, Averill, has left the safety of the monastery due to the plague having arrived there and was heading in the direction of the aforementioned village. Osmund figures this must be a sign from God that he should pursue his love and forsake the walls of a monastic life.

En route to the village the envoy encounters a young woman who is about to be burned at the stake by an angry mob for “blessing” a water well which ended up producing the arrival of the plague. Although the lady was trying to protect the village, she was nevertheless suspected of witchcraft. Osmund desires to help set the woman free and it appears that Ulric is in agreement, but after taking her off the stake, Ulric quickly slashes her throat and breaks her neck. When told by young Osmund that she “was not a witch”, Ulric explains that he acted out of mercy, since the villagers would have recaptured and burned her.

Once arriving in the forest where the village is located, Osmund locates Averill’s horse but is devastated when he also discovers her blood soaked clothing nearby. Ulric describes their real reason for being sent on their mission – the Church has learned that the village has forsook God and has turned to witchcraft. Apparently, there is talk of a necromancer living in the village, one who can bring the dead back to life. Their orders are to identify this necromancer, place him or her in a torture device, and return them to the bishop. In case you can’t tell, there is a Star Wars Episode III similarity brewing.

The two leaders of the village, Hob and Langiva, are initially very friendly and welcoming to the envoy. Langiva develops a friendship with Osmund and shows him a body they found in the forest. Sure enough, it is Averill. Extreme grief begins to negatively affect Osmund as the rest of the crew continue to discern who the necromancer really is. Osmund follows Langiva into the forest and to his astonishment and fear, watches her raise Averill back to life. He runs back to tell the envoy who have all been drugged into a deep sleep. When everyone wakes up, they are in a water pit and are told the reasons the village has enjoyed a plague free existence – they long ago renounced God and began living under the power of the necromancer. Langiva offers them freedom in return for forsaking God. They all deny the offer, except one soldier who is ultimately killed anyway (the traitor is hanged, a nice nod to the hanging of the original betrayer, Judas Iscariot). Osmund is released to spend a few moments with Averill in a tent. He notices she is unable to focus and is mentally lost. He attributes this to her being wakened from the dead and stabs her in order to give her peace. Ulric is drawn and quartered. During an ensuing scuffle, the remaining soldiers free themselves with a knife and begin to destroy the village. Langiva finally reveals the truth to Osmund. Averill was not dead, she had simply been drugged by Langiva in order to keep the village people in awe of her “power” to raise the dead. All of this finally creates such hatred in Osmund that he becomes a torturer and begins hunting down heretics in the “name of the Lord.”

Black Death attempts to ask, and perhaps in some instances answer, several spiritual and ethical questions. Does God show displeasure by sending destructive plagues? What is genuine mercy? Does the denial of God produce harmful consequences? Or is it the propagation of the gospel that is to blame for suffering? The film pits the warm hearted monk Osmund against the fundamentalist knight Ulric, but ultimately attempts to demonstrate that in the world of Christianity, the line between the two is dangerously thin. The movie attempts to show that regardless of the starting place, a life lived in the teachings and consequences of Christianity will eventually find itself bitter and alienated from anyone who might think differently. In this way, Black Death unashamedly seeks to demonstrate how the world of the 14th century and the world of the 21st century are closer than we might think. Not much has changed.

This presents an intriguing glimpse into the practical repercussions of spirituality that is based off works. With very few exceptions, the spirituality of medieval Europe was a rewards based religion where God most blesses those who most please him. Therefore, if you do good enough, God is pleased with you. If you do bad, God bumps you down a few levels on the righteousness scale. Thus, two dangers inherit with works-based religion are 1)guilt and 2)expectation. Guilt because we will always fail to keep the commands of God and expectation because when we are doing right, we expect God to appropriately respond with blessing. God becomes somewhat of a vending machine – put in the good works and we expect the machine to dispense the candy.

In that way, Black Death is correct to say that not much has changed. Despite the Protestant church’s declaration of the gospel – that we are saved by grace through faith – we nevertheless revert back to a performance based standing with God. Osmund, despite his life of devotion to God, found himself overcome with feelings of betrayal by God and anger against God because the love of his life was taken from him. The machine did not dispense the candy equal to the works given.

Where Black Death fails is in the message it was probably most attempting to convey – that religion, especially 21st century Christianity, is ultimately nothing more than fundamental hypocrites who excel at oppressing the human race. No doubt Christianity has seen its dark years and continues to cast a stain on the name of Christ through extreme groups and actions. But it is disingenuous to suggest that the actions of a small few are indicative of the whole. If Black Death is making a statement against the oppressive tendencies of the 21st church, it first needs to determine who is actually looking through too narrow a lens.

Apart from the clear spiritual implications of the film, Sean Bean is always wonderful and the direction is, for the most part, well done. There are moments when the camera could have been a bit more steady and fluid, but that is nitpicking. I found myself interested in the film, not only for the overtones of Christian thought, but also for the story itself. It’s worth a look.

 

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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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