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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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Pro-Life – Review

Pro-Life – Review

Jul 1, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by John Carpenter, 2006
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Pro-Life is the second effort from famed horror director John Carpenter for the incredibly wonderful Master’s of Horror television series created by Showtime.  The story depicts an ultra-conservative father named Dwayne Burcell (Ron Perlman) who becomes irate when he learns his pregnant, underage daughter is being treated inside an abortion clinic against his wishes.  Come to find out, this clinic already has a restraining order against Burcell for previous threatening behavior, but the stakes are much higher now that his daughter is inside.  All we know about the daughter, Angelique, is that she was running from someone or something at the beginning of the film and was picked up along the road by two doctors – two doctors who just so happened to work at the aforementioned clinic.  Thinking he heard a voice directly from God to “protect the baby”, Dwayne and his three sons storm the clinic, killing anyone who gets in their way.

As we learn more about Burcell and his determination to “free” his daughter, we also learn more about how she become pregnant.  She tells the shocking story of how a demon dragged her below the surface of the earth and raped her.  She is convinced that the baby inside her is of the devil and wants it destroyed immediately.  Unfortunately, demon babies apparently develop much faster than human babies, because instead of the normal 9 months for gestation, this demon baby caused Angelique to go into labor in a matter of days.  When she arrived at the clinic, she looked only a couple of months pregnant.  A few hours later, she was delivering.  Meanwhile, Burcell is busy giving the head doctor of the clinic a dose of his own medicine.  In a disturbing scene, Burcell and his son use a suction device on the lead doctor to show him what “sucking the life” out of a human is all about.  Pretty rough.

Finally, Angelique delivers the baby and sure enough, it is a whacked out demon looking creature not unlike the creature we see burst from Norris’ chest in Carpenter’s classic 1982 film The Thing.   At this point, the film adds another ingredient to the mix.  The demon father, who looks exactly like what you figure a demon might look like, shows up at the hospital to claim his baby.  Before the demon makes his way to the delivery room, he comes face to face with Burcell.  The climatic point of the movie occurs at this moment when the demon speaks to Burcell and says, “protect the baby.”  Yep, it was the voice of a demon, not God, that Burcell was hearing the entire time, making his rampage a demonic act rather than a holy one.  Sensing that she only has a few more minutes, Angelique takes a gun and shoots the baby in the head just as the demon father comes in the room.  Grieving over the death of his baby, the demon picks up his child, ignoring Angelique, and carries him sadly back to hell.  The film ends.

The title alone of this film along with above synopsis would lead one to believe that Carpenter is attempting to make a huge social and political statement.  Amazingly, it just isn’t the case.  I have given Pro-Life a good deal of thought in the last couple of days since viewing it and I am convinced that Carpenter used a hot-bed issue not to provide social commentary of his own, but simply as a way to create a powerful backdrop to the story he really wanted to tell – parents and their relationship with children.  In some ways, Carpenter paints a very sympathetic picture of Burcell.  It is a man who, misguided he may be by his solution, is convinced that abortion is murder and does not want his daughter engaging in that kind of activity.  Add to that the pious, religious angle and I suppose some would write off Burcell as just a fundamental religious zealot with no intellect or sense of right and wrong.  I don’t see that here.  Yes, he is out of control and heavily misinterpreting the messages he receives, but the love of family is what drives him more than anything else.  The same is true for the demon.  Both Burcell and the demon are trying to save their own flesh and blood and Carpenter reminds us of the strong bind between parent and child, a bond that creates the ultimate kind of pain when a child is taken away.

Pro-Life is not a great film, but it has redeeming moments and from frame one is an exciting, non-stop action horror movie.  Due to the 60 minute time constraint, character development is difficult to achieve, but this is off-set by the incredible performance from Ron Perlman who has made a career of dominating every scene he is in.  Some of the demon scenes come across a bit cheesy, but they quickly give way to the serious undertones of the film and do provide a few genuine scares.  John Carpenter is a legendary director who has had a poor run the last several years with his box-office attempts.  It is nice to see that he still “has it.”  This movie is not as effective as Carpenter’s other Masters of Horror attempt Cigarette Burns, but it is still worth the hour of your life to watch it.

Click Here to purchase Pro-Life

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Primal – Review

Primal – Review

Jun 23, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Josh Reed, 2010
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Go into the remote wilderness with a handful of happy-go-lucky friends to study prehistoric rock paintings.  Become contaminated in a pond and metamorphose into a frenzied omnivore with a bad case of piranha mouth.  Eat your friends or die trying.  That is Primal, a 2010 Australian picture written and directed by Josh Reed.

Let me perfectly clear.  This is not a multi-layered thinky art film.  But even the flimsiest horror movies suggest certain grander topics.  And for me, that’s why the genre is so terribly interesting.

For instance, what does the title mean?  I don’t want to read too much between the lines, but the word, Primal, seems to suggest that the transformation the characters undergo takes them back to an earlier form of humanoid, like evolution in reverse.

This back in time trajectory is foreshadowed by the opening scene of Mr. Caveman drawing his pictographs (a warning?) on the rock wall.  The journey to a state before human beings domesticated their primal urges is further prefigured by the Range Rover trek of our adventurers into the Aussie jungle.  In literature and film, the wilderness represents untamed dangerous forces.  Consider the Bible itself.  In Mark’s Gospel, it says, “At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him (Mark 1:12,13).” Why the zoological observation about being with the wild animals?  It sets a mood.  When you leave civilization, monsters will get you and bad things will happen.

Physical transformation is a major element for body horror.  We want to know what a human being really is.  What are the limits of humanity?  Where are the boundaries and what happens when they are crossed?  The first person to transform is Mel.  When the others decide that she may have to be put down, her boyfriend is reticent to harm her.  But the clear thinking Last Girl, Anja, tells him repeatedly, “That’s not Mel anymore.”

With Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we get to see the beast that lives within.  Primal does something similar.  It says that underneath the constraints of our civilized veneer, we are all ravenous maniacs, barely more than animals.

You may think you’ve seen this movie a thousand times before, but Reed does have a few surprises.  At first blush a garden-variety cannibal zombie flick, it develops shades of Lovecraftian cosmic horror.  Sadly, this is a weakness for the movie instead of a strength.

Don’t scrutinize it too long.  The holes in the plot are large enough to walk a camel through.  What is the deal with the pond and what causes the happy campers to transform?  Is it a virus?  Something supernatural?  Why the impregnation?  How does the uber-monster factor in?  I think it just tries to do too much in the last half hour.  Primal is not a great film, but it’s not bad.  It might even be better than I thought.

Click Here to purchase Primal

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Cabin Fever – Review

Cabin Fever – Review

Mar 12, 2011

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Eli Roth, 2002
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Is Cabin Fever a horror movie?  Of course it is; who can deny the graphic and grotesque deterioration of the human body  that lands Eli Roth’s film safely in the sub-category of body horror.  But still we must ask, why?  What makes Cabin Fever different than, let’s say, the 1995 movie Outbreak starring Dennis Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.   Both films concern a deadly outbreak of an unknown virus that rapidly and morbidly disintegrates human flesh.  Whereas most “body horror” films have a clear “evil” persona to them, such as The Fly, or the Cronos device, the alien in The Thing, or even the deranged Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede, the villain in Cabin Fever is the disease itself (and, of course, the inability of the friends to get along).  No one is coming back from the dead to hunt humans.  No one is masterminding the spread of the disease.  No single character personifies the disastrous results of contracting the virus.  It is simply a survival story of 5 friends in the woods.

Perhaps one answer is that we should re-think whether or not a film like Outbreak is actually a horror movie.  My colleague and team member, Danny, has some ideas as to what constitutes a true horror film, specifically related to body horror, and his review of Black Swan seems to indicate his willingness to place films under the horror category that might not normally be labeled as such.

But it is Roth’s direction and inclusion of vivid imagery amongst a rather normal story that pushes Cabin Fever firmly into the world of horror.  The fact alone that “5 friends venture in the woods for a weekend getaway” is about as cliched horror as you can get.  And Roth would have no problem with me saying as much.  From the outset of Cabin Fever, writer and director Eli Roth was determined to make an “80’s horror film” that steered away from much of the PG-13 garbage that was taking the box-office by storm at the time.  Compromising on violence, over-the-top images, and nudity (although there is not much) was simply not going to happen and the final result is a horror movie that is much more enjoyable that it really should be.

Roth heavily borrows from legendary directors.  The influence of Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven is unmistakable.  The movie attempts to be comedic throughout, but does not capture the same kind of iconic comedy-horror for which the Evil Dead series is so famous.  It could be argued that Cabin Fever also exists as a satire of the 80’s universe of campy horror, but again it doesn’t push that envelope.  It seems that this film is just a fun, gruesome, at times ridiculous horror movie about bad things that happen in the woods.  Perfect!

What I don’t understand is why Roth was so heavily applauded by his colleagues and some reviewers as the next great thing to happen to horror.  Perhaps Roth still will be a major force at the end of his career, but I have a hard time filing that conclusion away from this film.  His 2005 film Hostel was met with mixed reviews, currently holding a 59% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

So, if you enjoy body horror, funny lines, cliched “go into the woods” setting, and a lot of fun, then I highly recommend Cabin Fever.  But don’t be expecting the next thought-provoking, mind-numbing horror flick.  It just aint that.

Click Here to purchase Cabin Fever

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Black Swan – Review

Black Swan – Review

Feb 23, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010
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For my money, the most disturbing horror sub-genre has always been body horror.  Many of the most indelible images from my thirty-plus years of consuming horror literature and film come from works of body horror.  Belial raping Duane’s love interest in Basket Case, Jeff Goldblum as the disintegrating Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s The Fly, the “prick” test in Carpenter’s The Thing, Billy Halleck wasting away in King’s Thinner—all of these and more are perma-burned into my brain, and I haven’t even got around to watching The Human Centipede.

Black Swan, the first horror film nominated for a major Academy Award since Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (or Jaws in 1976 if you are one of “those” people) takes the abuse that ballet dancers put themselves through on a daily basis, adds to it a Poe-like protagonist whose mind is degrading alongside her body, and finishes it off with a dash of Grand Guignol moments that would make Argento proud.  It is a heady piece of work.

The film is the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina finally getting her shot to dance the lead role in a New York ballet production of Swan Lake.  The pressures of the job and extra stress heaped upon her by an overbearing mother and a conniving dance troupe member begin to chip away at what appears to be her already tenuous grip on reality.

She starts imagining things, or are they actually happening—at first there is some question.  Lily, as the whore to Nina’s Madonna, provides the film with a worth while antagonist who may, or may not, be trying to drive Nina crazy.

As her psychosis builds, we are exposed to many horror tropes and, surprisingly, a handful of attempts at “gotcha” kind of scares.  There are some great moments throughout and I’m loathe to spoil them here, but I will say that her eventual transition into the titular black swan is simply beautiful.  There, as throughout, the make-up, physical and digital effects are top notch, as we have come to expect in Aronofsky’s films.

Effects aside, the core of the horror in Black Swan is anchored in realism.  We witness the tremendous stress and injury that goes with the day to day activity of ballet.  It is a good thing the film is rated R.  If too many young dancers got a peak at the film, it would be hard to cast all those Nutcracker mice for the coming holidays.

For some reason, the image that affected me most was a simple one late in the film.  Our protagonist, after a hard day of practice, takes off one of her pointe shoes and reveals a bruised foot and toes scrunched together like a clenched fist.  She takes off the second shoe and we get a full-on horror shot of that foot with all the toes fused into a single mass.  I’m not sure the more realistic reveal isn’t the more horrifying of the two.

There will be some argument among horror fans and critics as to whether Black Swan is really a horror film.  I’ll let them hash that out for themselves.  For me, it is a nearly perfect example of body horror, and it is the best horror film I’ve seen since Let the Right One In.

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