Horror. Worldview. Faith.

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.

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Night of the Creeps – Review

Night of the Creeps – Review

May 19, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Fred Dekker, 1986
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Before a single word is written about the 1986 B-film classic Night of the Creeps, it is imperative that the career of writer and director Fred Dekker is acknowledged as one of the more unfortunate stories in horror movie history.  Dekker is an immensely gifted artist who created two of the most enduring and fan loved genre films of the 80’s – Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.  Today, both of these films enjoy a massive cult following and have been highlighted in various horror conventions over the years.  As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and I have yet to hear a single producer, director, or actor in the movie industry say anything other than the confident brilliance Dekker brings to a film project.  However, money rules the day in Hollywood.  Both Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad were box office failures.  The failure of Robocop 3 sealed the deal.  There is little argument, even from those within the movie studios, that the poor return at the box office had nothing to do with Dekker’s ability to direct and everything to do with the incredibly inept marketing strategies employed by the studio.  Case in point, the tag line for The Monster Squad was “You know who to call if you have ghosts, but who do you call if you have monsters?”  Wow, that is horrific.  Much more could be said, but this reviewer mourns the early departure of what I consider to be a superb director and talent in the horror industry.  Enough time has elapsed; a studio needs to give Dekker another chance.

Night of the Creeps is a perfect blending of about every B-film ingredient you can think of.  Aliens, zombies, sororities, a two-fisted cop, parasites, college humor, cryogenic labs, and gore are all beautifully mixed together.  Dekker refers to his film as placing all his favorite elements in a blender and hitting puree.  It is done tongue-in-cheek and yet has a serious tone.  It is filmed unmistakeably in the style of the 80’s and yet is not overly campy.  This is horror at its best.

The film begins with a strange UFO and alien scene where an experiment of some kind is launched from the spaceship down to planet earth.  The year is 1959 and a couple of sweethearts see what they mistaken to be a falling star.  The boyfriend finds the capsule and several slug like creatures infect him.  At the same time, the girlfriend is chopped up by an escaped homicidal maniac.  Yep, that is one heck of an awesome beginning.

Cut to the present age where we meet and begin to follow two college roommates, Chris Romero (Jason Lively – tough to see him as anything other than Rusty Griswold) and J.C. Hooper.  By the way, that “J.C.” is short for John Carpenter and you can probably figure out the Hooper and Romero names.  J.C. is a crippled who walks with two crutches and is on the prowl to help his best friend Chris score with the love of his life, Cynthia Cronenberg (yep, Cronenberg – seeing a pattern here?).  In order to accomplish that feat, they figure joining a fraternity is in good order.  Their orientation task?  To steal a cadaver and leave it on the front steps of a rival fraternity.  When the two friends set out to accomplish their goal, they find their way into a cryogenic lab where a frozen dude, who just so happens to be the infected guy from 1959, is encased in carbonite (or something like that).   You can guess what happens.  Chris and J.C. thaw out the corpse and the slugs are back on the loose!

Enter the best character of the film, Detective Ray Cameron (a nod to James) who is the coolest cop to grace the silver screen except maybe for Joe Hallenbeck.  Ray Cameron is beautifully played by Tom Atkins, perhaps my favorite character actor of all time.  “THRILL ME!”  Those are the words used by Cameron when answering a phone or walking into a crime scene.  Anyway, Cameron was the cop on the scene in 1959 when the girl was hacked to pieces (who just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend).  He begins to make the connection to the present day situation.  Meanwhile, pandemonium is running wild as more and more college students become infected by the slugs, turn into zombies, and produce more slugs.  Unfortunately, J.C. meets his demise, but not before he learns the secret to killing the creeps – fire.

Eventually the film boils down to an entire fraternity being turned into zombies while on the way to pick up their dates at the sorority house.  This leads to some of the most epic scenes imaginable as you have a bunch of college dudes in tuxedos walking around as zombies.  After Ray Cameron busts into the sorority house to save the day, he delivers what is possibly the best line in horror movie history:

“I have good news and bad news girls.  The good news is that your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“They’re Dead!”

Flame throwers, shotguns, lawn mowers, and all kinds of fun inhabit the last 20 minutes of the film as Chris and Cynthia fight their way out of trouble.

As you can tell by now, I love this film.  But it is far from perfect.  Some of the scenes are beyond believable, even for B-film horror, and the cheese factor at times goes pretty high, which is of course intended, but probably goes overboard on occasion.  Much of the dialogue is strained and you may find yourself rolling your eyes at specific scenes in order to get through them.  But all of this happens with the greater good always at hand.  Dekker manages to maintain a small piece of sincerity in the film, especially in scenes such as Chris listening to J.C.’s recorded final message and Ray’s speech on finding his ex mutilated.

Steven Spielberg is all over the place in Night of the Creeps.  There is, of course, a blatant spoof of the beach scene when Cameron sees his girlfriend rise out of the water, complete with the cuts being signaled by people walking past him.  There are more subtle tributes as well, such as when the camera zooms on Cameron’s face while the background moves in the distance when he sees the ax-murderer turned zombie.  That Dekker was influenced by Spielberg’s brilliance is putting it mildly.

Thankfully, Night of the Creeps is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray in a wonderful edition, complete with terrific behind the scenes footage and interviews.  I really don’t like the cover art for the DVD however.  In its original release, the movie went through several different poster and art changes, the best by far being the zombie dressed in a tuxedo holding a bouquet of roses.  If you have never seen Night of the Creeps, then by all means click the link below and buy it now!

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The Damned Thing – Review

The Damned Thing – Review

Apr 29, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Tobe Hooper, 2006
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Don’t mess with Texas.  Especially the oil in Texas which is apparently sick and tired of being taken for granted and used by ungrateful humans.  The Damned Thing is the first episode in the second season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror and is directed by one of the all time horror greats, Tobe Hopper.  It is roughly based on the short story of the same title by Ambrose Bierce.

In 1981, a young Kevin Reddle watches as his loving father suddenly flips out and shoots down his mom in cold blood and then turns to kill Kevin.  Running and hiding in the field outside, Kevin watches as his father is brutally killed by an unseen force.  Twenty-four years later, Kevin is the sheriff in the same town of Cloverdale and similar kinds of phenomenon begin happening; the town folk begin suffering extreme bouts of anger, turning on one another for no real reason.  Kevin recognizes what is happening, but remains silent about the potential chaos that will ensue.  Sure enough, his estranged wife turns on their son and would have killed him if Kevin had not intervened.  But unfortunately, Kevin is not immune from the force and is overwhelmed himself, eventually turning on his wife and son.  At the end of the film, the ground opens up and a huge “oil monster” swallows up Kevin.  His wife and kid escape in the car, only to run out of gas about a mile down the road.  They are attacked by the monster and the film ends.

Apart from a dizzying experience with the camera in the opening shot of the film, Tobe Hooper’s classic touch is all over this movie and it delivers a pleasurable viewing experience.  The opening scene is somewhat shocking, especially if you have not read the plot or spoilers of the movie.  There are not many true “scares” throughout the 60 minute production, but this movie is based on a message that is more concerned with a moral tale than it is visceral scares.  Essentially, that message is that human beings do not have the right attitude with mother nature and that we take for granted, perhaps even abuse, that which is so valuable to us.  Thankfully, Hooper does not go overboard on the political message that could have turned this film into another Al Gore special.  In fact, if not for the short story to help us along, fans might be scratching their heads as to why a big monster made of oil is wreaking havoc on a simple little Texas town.

Ted Raimi wonderfully portrays the town’s strange Catholic priest and Sean Patrick Flanery does an excellent job with the character of Kevin Reddle, demonstrating a man who still deeply loves his family but is forever lost in the shadow of his 1981 experience.  One of the more disturbing scenes of the film is when a man becomes outraged while hammering a nail into a piece of wood and begins hammering himself in the face until he bleeds to death.  That is “a tough way to commit suicide” remarks Sheriff Reddle, acknowledging his own refusal to publically announce what is really happening.

This is yet another a satisfactory effort from the Masters of Horror folks and Tobe Hooper.  Not great, but worth the time.

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The Mummy – Review

The Mummy – Review

Mar 28, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Terence Fisher, 1959
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Legendary horror director Terence Fisher cemented his status as horror icon with the release of the 1958 masterpiece Horror of Dracula.  The movie set box-office records in the UK and the US, only to be broken one year later by the release of The Mummy.  Yes, Hammer Horror was establishing itself early on as a force to be reckoned with, arguably remaking Universal’s most prized horror gems into even better stories and adaptations.

The Mummy is about a team of archaeologists in the 1890’s who discover the tomb of the Egyptian princess Ananka.  There is much celebration over the once-in-a-lifetime find except when Ananka’s high priest returns from the dead to destroy those who desecrated her tomb.  They can’t say they weren’t warned – just before the team opened the tomb, a messenger of doom (who reminded me of Kazim from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), who still worships the God Karnak, declared that all who desecrated Anaka’s place of slumber would be destroyed.  It is this mysterious Egyptian who eventually summons the power of Kharis, the high priest, and bids him the task of hunting down and killing the archaeologists.

Peter Cushing stars at John Banning, one of the three desecrators, and Christopher Lee portrays the high priest/mummy.  Although The Mummy lacks the charm, elegance, and beauty of Horror of Dracula, there is still much to be appreciated in the film.  Lee presents a sympathetic monster who is more concerned with his true love Ananka than he is on the destruction of the desacrators.  When Banning’s wife appears on the scene and looks strikingly similar to the Princess Ananka, the intentions and loyalties of the mummy dramatically change.  In this way, The Mummy reminds the viewing audience that the heart for a woman can soften even the most determined acts of revenge.

In a neat piece of trivia, The Mummy was one of those films where the principle artwork and posters were released before the movie had even finished production.  Many times, the artwork was not in parallel with the imagery of the film.  So, when Christopher Lee saw the movie poster with a big hole gaping in the mummy’s chest, he was determined to make sure that happened.   So, at the end of the movie, we see the mummy getting elephant guns blasted through him.

This is just simply a classic that must be viewed by every horror fan.  Don’t go into it expecting Brendan Fraiser.  It is way better than that.

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The Thing – Review

The Thing – Review

Feb 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by John Carpenter, 1982
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Arguably never in the history of cinema has a film been so universally hated upon its release at the box office only to be near universally loved upon its home video release; that is the story of John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing.  The movie is based very loosely on the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World, which was in turn based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr.  It is an apocalyptic story concerning an assimilating extraterrestrial parasite that wreaks havoc on an Antarctic research station and, like  other “virus” related movies, ultimately asks the question, “what would happen if this creature reached civilization?”  One researcher at the Antarctic station, Dr. Blair (portrayed brilliantly by Wilford Brimley), discovers the answer to that fateful question which leads him to the brink of insanity.  Thus, the movie once again leads us into that wonderful world of horror where the humans are as much of a threat as the creature.

After discovering the charred remains of a Norwegian research facility, some of the American researches stumble across a frozen creature that seems to have partially human features.  They decide to bring the creature back to the American base for research, and when the thawing out process begins, so does the carnage.  Soon, the team realizes that this creature can perfectly assimilate any living organism it touches.  The hunt is on both for the creature itself and to discover who among the team has already been infected.  This is done by a simple blood test that yields one of the most suspenseful and pulse-pounding scenes of the film.  The movie concludes with a rather pessimistic ending, leaving the viewer to wonder if the “thing” has truly been destroyed.

Apart from Halloween, The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film to date.  The movie features an all male cast with Kurt Russell playing the lead character R.J. MacReady, a character that seemed to perfectly fit the personality of Russell.  The near claustrophobic nature of the Antarctic research facility is the ideal backdrop for the horror of the “thing” and the score provided by Ennio Morricone adds the perfect ambiance for the frozen, snowed over terrain (incidentally, this is one of the few films Carpenter did not score himself, although the music sounds exactly like something Carpenter would have written).  But it is the creature effects provided by Rob Bottin that sets the film apart as truly special.  For something as elaborate as these creature scenes, and there are many of them, one would typically think that a 1982 film would dramatically show its age.  Not so.  The effects stand up to today’s standards even in the realm of a 21st century digital universe, the only possible exception being the Blair creature at the very end of the film that was created using stop-motion animation.

What is most interesting about The Thing is the nature of assimilation.  Since the creature perfectly mimics those who it is in contact with, the team must discern between normal, human emotions and “weird” actions that could point to infection.  As they discover, the difference between the human and the infected is not always easy to determine.  What ensues, then, is an increasing level of distrust among the group which ultimately leads to the great universal downfall of all civilizations:  an interest only in self.  With those sub-themes firmly in place, combined with brilliant creature effects and a beautiful shot film, The Thing is a movie for the ages.

Its legacy continues to grow.  In 2007, Universal Studio’s Halloween event called Halloween Horror Nights featured a haunted house called “The Thing:  Assimilation” (unfortunately it was not very good).  Video games have been created based of Carpenter’s film.  A comic book series was adapted and it has been released that a 2011 prequel is in the works.  The special edition DVD is one of the very best out there, the audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is simply priceless.

The Thing by John Carpenter probably goes on my top ten horror list of all time.  I unreservedly recommend it.

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An American Werewolf in London – Review

An American Werewolf in London – Review

Jan 29, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by John Landis, 1981
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I really want to love the werewolf horror movie sub-genre.  I love wolves.  I even investigated getting a wolf for a pet one time.  Shape-shifters, that is, human beings who can physically change into animals, are a part of folklore traditions the world over.  Hey, the notion of human beings who transform into animals is very cool.  And of all the animals, wolves are among the coolest.  Which animal would you like to become, a platypus?  The trouble is that while I like the idea of werewolf movies, I have not seen many that I truly like.  So often, either the effects are cheesy or the plot is weak.  There are certain werewolf films that horror movie fans tend to like which leave me unmoved.  There are great vampire flicks, great ghost story flicks, great zombie flicks, great slasher flicks, great monster flicks and great exorcism flicks.  But I am still waiting to find a really great werewolf picture.  An American Werewolf in London does not quite fit that bill, though I do like the movie quite a lot.  From what I’ve seen, it’s as good as they get.  It’s a fun ride, and yet falls short in an important way.

The werewolf myth is powerful.  What is the core of human nature?  What makes us civilized beings?  Are we really just animals at heart, underneath the clothes.  Some of the films that do try to take these philosophical questions seriously happen to be dull or overly predictable.  Others, such as American Werewolf in London, do not fail to entertain but cannot manage to scrape the narrative very far beneath the surface.

Two young American men, David and Jack, are backpacking through Europe, traipsing across the north of England before heading to Italy.  One of the best scenes is at the beginning when, on a damp cold night, the Americans stumble upon ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ public house.  Clearly unwelcome, they are sent on their way with dire warnings such as, “Keep to the road,” “Stay off the moors,” and “Beware the moon.”  Paying no attention to the warnings, David and Jack soon find themselves lost under a full moon being terrorized by an unseen howling beast.  Jack is killed by the monster.  David is injured but is rescued and taken to a hospital in London.

As David recovers, he enters a romance with English nurse, Alex, played by Jenny Agutter.  At the same time, an investigation is started to find the truth about his friend’s death and other mysterious slayings.  David’s deceased friend, Jack, makes a couple of post-mortem appearances to him in order to warn him that he will transform into a werewolf at the next full moon and the only way to prevent himself from slaughtering many innocent people is to take his own life.  Apparently, part of the werewolf’s curse is that all whose lives he takes are doomed to wander the earth as the undead, lost souls, until the werewolf is killed.  Jack pleads with David to prevent further suffering and free those already affected by doing himself in.

David remains unconvinced, until it is too late.  Then to prevent himself from harming Alex, he unsuccessfully attempts to get himself arrested. The high point comes when he transforms and brings havoc upon the public in Piccadilly Circus in London.  His nurse/lover Alex goes to find him.  The police and medical establishment are after him.  Finally, David in wolf form, gets chased and trapped in an alley.

**SPOILER BEGINS**

Some reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction with the abrupt ending.  It does conclude sort of unexpectedly.  David is killed; you see Alex weep for a few seconds, and then BOOM, it’s the credits.  Director John Landis chose to end the movie right at the moment of climax, without allowing time for the repercussions to unfold.  The more I think about it, the less the suddenness of the ending bothers me.  Jack has been trying for the bulk of the movie to convince David to end his own life.  David considered it a few times; tried to say goodbye to his family; even put a Swiss Army Knife to his wrist at one point.  When David is trapped in an alley and Alex appeals to him, there is a moment when the eyes of the werewolf may recognize her.  But then it lunges to attack and is pumped full of bullets by the police.  And BOOM, it’s over.  Maybe some viewers see this as nihilistic.  We’re often trained to think by the cinema that the love of a good woman can rehabilitate a wayward man.  But here the bestial nature seems to win out.  That’s not how I read the picture, however.  I do think wolf-man David has at least a spark of recognition when Alex says his name.  His lurch to attack her is not the triumph of animal ferocity.  It is David doing the most civilized thing he can.  He gives his life, suicide by cop, to save the life of the one he loves.  He cannot be changed or fixed or improved.  A werewolf cannot be domesticated.  He can only kill or be killed.  To protect Alex, to end the cycle of violence, and perhaps to liberate the lost souls he has imprisoned by earlier attacks, he forces the police to put him down.

**SPOILER ENDS**

The transformation effects were exceptionally good for their time and actually hold up rather well.  For my money, they still beat the CGI wizardry you get today.  It’s not scary, but it is disturbing.

Director John Landis understands that horror and comedy are not antithetical.  In fact, they often work well together.  It takes a clever storyteller to find the right balance between horror and humor.  Too much either direction can fail.  An American Werewolf in London is a premium example of horrible ideas presented with just enough tongue-in-cheek to keep the audience from tuning out, either by revulsion or boredom.  Hand-in-hand with the light touch is the movie’s soundtrack.  It features three versions of Blue Moon, Moon Dance by Van Morrison and Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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