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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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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Devil – Review

Devil – Review

Oct 3, 2010

reviewed by Skot
directed by John Erick Dowdle, 2010
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“If the devil is real, God, also, must be real.”  So says the narrator of Devil, the latest addition to the body of work of M. Night Shyamalan.  Shyamalan is the auteur behind Sixth Sense, The Village, and Signs, among others.  In this case, he neither wrote nor directed the film.  Instead, he came up with the idea and then produced it.  According to reports, Devil is the first in a series of films under the heading of The Night Chronicles.

One of the film’s promotional posters shows the outside of an elevator door.  A red light seeps through the cracks in the door in the shape of an inverted cross.  The image comes with this tagline: “Five strangers trapped.  One of them is not what they seem.” The red upside-down cross along with the title of the movie implies that one of the strangers trapped in the elevator is Old Scratch himself.  That is, indeed, the premise of this film.

Five people, each with something to hide, are stuck together in an elevator.  The mood darkens as the authorities attempt their rescue.  One at a time, the passengers start getting mysteriously injured (and worse) during intermittent light outages.  Building security officers notify the police when it appears a homicide has occurred.  The officers can watch on security cameras but the communication only goes one direction.

It’s a horror film with a whodunit twist.  Others have remarked on the similarity to the 1939 Agatha Christie book, And Then There Were None in which a group of people with guilty pasts are stuck in an isolated location and begin to die one by one.

According to a survey of the Pew Research Center dated September 28, 2010, Americans score poorly on general knowledge about religion.  While people seem to have less and less understanding of religious teaching, some basic religiosity still underlies our culture.  What can we make of it when one of Hollywood’s top filmmakers uses a verse from the New Testament to open his much anticipated latest release?  Before the first credits appear on the screen, the audience is given this passage to ponder: Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Is this just a prop to effective storytelling?  Or it could also be that, in spite of other evidence, Americans remain a God haunted people.

With the verse from 1st Peter in mind, the story follows the notion that the Devil comes into our midst, clothed in the garb of humanity, in order to torment those who have done evil.  Significantly, the one character who is able to see things clearly is the man of faith.  Not the man of science.  Not the man of evidence.  Science and reason can take you a long way, but only so far.  The man of faith was mocked and laughed at for his outdated superstitions.  But when the evidence was missing or misleading, it was the man of faith who could still connect the dots.  Like The Last Exorcism, another recent horror film, Devil also makes the claim that the reality of the devil is proof of the existence of God.  Looking into the darkness becomes an occasion to consider the light.

At the film’s promotion at this year’s ComicCon in San Diego, audience members giggled when the screen said, “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.”  Not the intended reaction, I’m sure.  When Sixth Sense came out in 1999, fans and critics were excited by this new creative talent, a stylish horror director who created stories with twists to baffle Alfred Hitchcock.  As Shyamalan wrote and directed new tales, audiences had mixed reactions.  Some appreciated his trademark plot turns and his soft pedal approach to spirituality.  Others complained that he lost his horror edge and still others were just confused.  The question for many people has been whether Devil would mark Shyamalan’s return to chiller cinema or be just another misguided bait-n-switch attempt to appeal to large audiences while appearing to throw the horror fans a bone.

Personally, I have liked most of Shyamalan’s movies.  The exceptions being Lady in the Water and The Happening. Lady was just bad and wrong.  Happening had some cool moments but was dreadfully cast and fizzled miserably by the end.  I loved Unbreakable and have enjoyed all his other major pictures.  So I still get excited when I hear about his upcoming projects.  Devil was a good horror film.  It was contrived, but most things are.  And it was formulaic but I’m still open enough to be surprised by Shyamalan’s formulas.

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The Last Exorcism – Review (second opinion)

The Last Exorcism – Review (second opinion)

Sep 1, 2010

reviewed by Skot
directed by Daniel Stamm, 2010
(read Melissa’s review here)
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If you believe in God, you have to believe in the Devil.”  Or so said the reverend Cotton Marcus in Eli Roth’s new movie, The Last Exorcism.  That’s even the tagline on some of the move posters.  Actually, I think he’s got it wrong.  It should be the other way around: “if you believe in the Devil, then you must believe in God.”  And this is the point the movie ends up making.

What should we make of the movie poster with a crucifix and the words, “Believe in Him” above it?  The girl in the poster is bowing in submission, though contorted into a grotesque version of a believer paying devotion before the symbol of the Lord.  Pictures mean things.  And I’m still wondering what this one means.

Cotton Marcus is the magnetic pastor of a pentecostal-ish congregation in the deep South.  He started preaching in his dad’s church when he was 8 years old.  He’s a born performer.  Doing exorcisms has been a family ministry, passed from father to son, for generations.  However, during a family crisis, Cotton discovers that his faith is lost.  He continued the charade of his ministry, even the exorcisms, because. . . well, it’s a living.  And besides, he figured he was basically helping people.  Things change again when he learns of an episode where a child is accidentally killed during an exorcism.  This is his turning point.  Cotton decides to blow his own cover by performing one last exorcism with a documentary film crew recording his spiritual warfare sleight of hand.  The minister randomly chooses one of the frequent letters he receives from troubled souls requesting his services and off they go.

They arrive at the Sweetzer farm in poor rural Louisiana where they meet Nell, an angelically innocent girl whose father is convinced she is inhabited by the Devil.  Cotton employs his usual tricks, allowing the camera see how he does things behind the scenes.  Things get interesting when the counterfeit demon slayer comes up against something real.

To say more about the plot would be to give too much away.  The central question is whether the devil is real and, if so, what implications should this have on one’s belief in God.

When I heard that Eli Roth was producing The Last Exorcism, I expected more than I got, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Actually, I appreciate the comparative restraint this movie exercises.  Too many occult themed movies feel the need to top the last in terms of shock and awe, leading many into the realm of the absurd.  A general rule of thumb for storytellers is to show, not to tell.  But one can show too much.  Equally important to restraint and good editing is timing.  If you must show, then do so at the exact best time to have the greatest impact.

Many people I’ve talked to say they disliked the ending.  The director definitely took a risk.  In my opinion, the ending is not entirely satisfying, but it wasn’t  a total miss.  I needed just a little bit more.  The film is good, not great.  It takes the increasingly popular found footage approach, which still works for me.

Take a little bit Rosemary’s Baby, a little bit The Exorcist, a little bit Blair Witch Project and more than a smidge of The Exorcism of Emily Rose.  Stir them on a low heat and you get this new film.  The Last Exorcism is not nearly as good as any of the above mentioned projects, but is still probably better than most occult-themed films.

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Wolfman – Review

Wolfman – Review

Jul 10, 2010

reviewed by Skot
directed by Joe Johnston, 2010
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“It is said there is no sin in killing a beast, only in killing a man.  But where does one begin and the other end?”

This is the question presented by the 2010 remake of The Wolfman, starring Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Torro and Emily Blunt.  It is asked near the beginning as well as at the end of the film.  It is a question that permeates many horror films, the werewolf sub-genre most especially.  It permeates them implicitly, if not explicitly as in this case.

Horror is one of the most relevant and important genres of film and literature for our times.  Horror and fantasy and science fiction, all forms of speculative writing, permit artists and scholars to consider subject matter that fits readily into no other format.  Each age wrestles with its own philosophical questions and ethical dilemmas.  Rational discourse is not the only, perhaps not even the best, way to address some perplexing issues.  Here is where the arts and the faculty of the human imagination can be of use.  One age-old question that has never been more relevant than today has to do with human nature.  How shall we define what it means to be a human being and what is our relationship to other people, to the natural world, and to God?

Understanding the nature of man is a prevalent undertaking in the horror genre.  What is the essence of humanity and how do we differ from the animals?  Likewise, what is the definition of a monster?  What do human beings look like beneath the surface?  We present ourselves as civilized beings, rational, and self-controlled.  But is that an accurate depiction of what we are like or just a clever facade?

Christian theology considers human nature to be corrupt.  It is not evil in essence, but it has fallen and been thoroughly tainted.  This fallen nature manifests itself in the evil acts we commit.  Ideas of tabula rasa and progressive improvement do not apply to the wolfman.  Jesus warned us against being whitewashed sepulchers, structures that are clean and bright externally but which only house decay.

The plot of this version of Wolfman is unoriginal.  It is set in Victorian England.  The 1941 original was in Wales.  Dangers are always found in the marginal places, on the frontiers.  England or Wales, a terrible creature is marauding the countryside devouring whomever it finds.  Gypsies are somehow involved.  There is a family curse.  A man changes into a wolf and back again.  The monster can only be stopped with silver bullets.

Lawrence Talbot is a man at war with his inner-being.  He finds himself cursed.  Like St. Paul, he continually does things he does not want to do (Cf. Romans 7).  The Freudian interpretation would see the chief character’s inner-wolf as the man’s repressed sexual frustration, his desire for his deceased brother’s fiancee and his adversarial relationship with his father.  Other interpreters will see the classic struggle between the two natures of the the Christian, the Old Adam and the New Man.

Unquestionably, the Wolfman is evil.  The beast inside must be killed.  It cannot be reformed or rehabilitated.  If it is not destroyed, it will destroy.

Robert Louise Stevenson also mined this ore with his novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”  The same man exhibited two personalities.  One of them civilized and self-controlled.  The other barbaric and dangerous.  Freud would perhaps call these the super-ego and the id.  Which personality was the truest representation of the one man?  In the end, they could not be separated.  Hyde had to be destroyed.
The Wolfman (2010) demonstrates once again the philosophical and theological importance of this much maligned genre of fiction as a metaphorical narrative.  Some things are best said in metaphors.

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The Fourth Kind – Review

The Fourth Kind – Review

May 27, 2010

reviewed by Skot
directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, 2009
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The Fourth Kind is a sci-fi horror picture starring action movie princess, Milla Jovovich.  I don’t know how many reviewers would classify it as science fiction, but I do so, though with hesitation, because U.F.O. movies tend to be a sci-fi sub-genre.  The director of Fourth Kind attempts to follow the examples of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Quarantine, and Paranormal Activity by presenting supposed documentary on-the-scene footage.  Then Fourth takes the technique to the next level by adding in dramatized re-enactments portrayed by Hollywood stars, cutting back and forth between the documentary footage and dramatizations, even occasionally running the two side by side for certain scenes.

Milla Jovovich plays psychologist, Abigail Tyler, who is investigating a series of unexplained phenomena she hears about from a number of her patients.  Early in the film, Dr. Tyler notices that several of her patients report trouble sleeping and peculiar images in their dreams, including that of a white owl watching over them.  We’ve all had weird dreams that we couldn’t quite shake off the next day.  So it is mildly creepy to hear different people describe seeing the same detail, and an unusual one at that, in their night terrors.  (Allow me to say that I was watching this movie with my 14-year-old son who was opening an eighth grade graduation card he received at this point in the film.  The card had an owl on it.  Woooooo-oooo).  The patients are all plagued with the feeling of not being able to remember something significant that happens during their dreams.

Dr. Tyler tries using hypnosis to bring these repressed memories into the light of day.  Not good.  Bad things happen.  People die.  Could it be that some things are so terrible that the memory of them causes madness?  An incomplete memory is bliss after all.

I applaud the filmmakers for taking a risk and doing something out of the ordinary.  It’s not exactly a nail-biter but there are a few genuinely disturbing moments.

The Fourth Kind is a different kind of U.F.O. movie that has more in common with supernatural chillers like The Exorcist than it does with sci-fi adventures like Star Trek or War of the Worlds or television’s V. This movie suggests that inhabitants of Nome, Alaska, and possibly millions of other earthlings, are being visited and even abducted by other-worldly entities which may or may not have arrived in your run-of-the-mill spacecraft.  Some scenes resemble episodes of demonic possession or spiritists channeling otherwordly intelligences more than merely patients in psychoanalysis coping with painful recovered memories.  This opens the possibility that these extraterrestrials could be from another dimension or universe instead of merely a distant galaxy.  The influence of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel can be seen.  Like a good postmodern sci-fi horror movie, The Fourth Kind delves more into metaphysics than astrophysics.

Like many examples of the horror genre, The Fourth Kind challenges the ability of reason to explain every aspect of human experience.  This movie explicitly argues the point that some phenomena, real and true, lie outside the scope of the scientific method.  Those who cling irrationally to the sufficiency of rationalism are the bad guys here.

Unfortunately, the interspersing of documentary style footage in and around the dramatized parts of the movie failed.  It didn’t make the movie scarier.  It was just distracting at first, but became annoying later on.  The filmmakers should have been forced to make a decision.  Either go the Blair Witch route entirely or scrap that technique altogether and just give the audience a solid dramatization.  It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  And what works in one scenario, one project, in the hands of certain artists, might not work elsewhere.

I don’t usually use a star system to rank movies, but for this I’d give it a 2.5 out of 5.  Now, if Milla Jovovich had gone all Jack Bauer on the aliens, that might’ve been worth the full five stars.

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