Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow – Review

Dark Night of the Scarecrow – Review

Feb 26, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Frank de Felitta, 1981

Dark Night of the Scarecrow was originally released as a made-for-television movie and aired on October 24, 1981 as part of the CBS Saturday Night Movies.  Today, DNOTS is considered to be the scarecrow movie by which all others are judged.  After the film had been somewhat forgotten, briefly released in the 80’s on VHS format, it was re-released as part of the “Texas Frightmare Weekend” in April of 2010.  In September of the same year, it found a home on DVD format, being distributed by VCI Entertainment.  Immediately after its release, horror forums, magazines, and ezines began heavily promoting the return of the classic.  When I attended the “Spooky Empire” horror convention in October of 2010, there was entire display and table devoted to its release.

The movie is about a mentally challenged 36 year old man named “Bubba” who has the mind of a 9 year old.  He is best friends with a little girl named Marylee.  Several of the men in the small county of Bodan do not like the relationship between Bubba and Marylee are eagerly wait for any opportunity to take violent action.  The ringleader of this posse is Otis Hazelrigg, portrayed by the veteran actor Charles Durning.  Otis is a postman and never takes his official postmaster outfit off the entire movie, even donning the cliched rounded mailman hat.  When Marylee is attacked by a vicious dog, Bubba steps in and saves her life.  Unfortunately, the town folk assume Bubba was the reason for her injuries.  The doctors expect Marylee to die, sending Otis and his band of beer chugging men out as a lynch mob to hunt down the innocent Bubba.  Meanwhile, Bubba has ran back home where he explains to his mother what has happened.  She tells him they are going to play “the hiding game.”  The hiding game consists of Bubba dressing up as a scarecrow and standing in the field until danger passes.  It has worked in the past, but this time the redneck boys have dogs with them, and Bubba’s scent is picked up.  Once the men realize he is the scarecrow, they empty 21 rounds into him.

Moments later, “Harless” (played by Lane Smith, the man who played the prosecutor in My Cousin Vinny), gets a call on his radio that the girl is not dead and she has explained to the authorities that Bubba actually saved her life, not attacked her.  Oops.  To cover up their crime, the men place a pitchfork in the hands of Bubba.  Cut to the worst courtroom scene that has ever graced the screen where the men get off due to a “lack of probable cause.”  Bubba’s mom freaks out and screams that “there is other justice in this world besides the law.”  You can probably guess what happens from here.  A scarecrow starts popping up in the mens yards, and one by one they start dying.  Otis is left to the very end where he ultimately meets his doom from the pitchfork of Bubba that he had originally placed in his dead hands to cover up his crime.  The movie ends with Marylee and Bubba exchanging a flower.

Interestingly, Bubba in scarecrow form never shows up as the “killer” until the last couple of minutes of the film.  We are left guessing that it might be his mom, the disgruntled prosecutor, or even Marylee.  In this way, DNOTS doubles as a great suspense film that most anyone could handle.  There is zero gore and the scares are mild.  Still yet, the film succeeds in being a fun, well written, and decently acted thriller that was no doubt perfect for a late night television audience.  I was a little underwhelmed by the “chase scene” at the end with Otis running from a slow moving tractor.  All he really had to do was take one step to the right or left.  And, of course, the competence of the Bodan County judicial system leaves something to be desired.

At the core of DNOTS is a tale of revenge.  Although we are left guessing throughout the movie, I was hoping that the killings were coming from the hands of Bubba’s reincarnated scarecrow form so that he could have the pleasure of dispensing the kills rather than someone acting his place.  All of the kills, save for the last, come from the point of view of the victim; we never really see the threat with our own eyes, but only through the reactions of the targeted men.  This makes DNOTS rely more on story than on effects, which suited the film perfectly.  This movie is still better than a good bit of the horror garbage released even today.  Pick up a copy when you get a chance.

Click Here to purchase Dark Night of the Scarecrow

1408 – Review

1408 – Review

Feb 25, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Mikael Hafstrom, 2007

1408 is a film based on the Stephen King short story of the same name found in the audio book collection “Blood and Smoke” and in the written form collection “Everything’s Eventual.”  The movie boasts of being on the same creepiness level as the immortal classic The Shining and certainly shares some similar themes with the iconic King masterpiece.  1408 is a visual playground of supernatural and “evil” activity that, although stunning and entertaining, could unintentionally mask the true power of the film’s core message:  The love of family.

The story follows Mike Enslin, an author who specializes in the supernatural genre, specifically writing of his experiences staying in  “hotels with spirits” and other alleged haunted vacation spots.  Despite his above average success as an author, Mike is a skeptic and does not truly believe in ghosts or spirits, making his work a daily battle of drudgery.  We discover throughout the story that Mike is separated from his wife and has lost his daughter Katie to cancer, only adding to his pessimistic and, at times, offensive attitude toward nearly everyone he encounters.  Mike receives a random postcard from the “Dolphin Hotel” with a simple but chilling message on the back; “don’t enter 1408.”  Attracted to the postcard, which offers something more enticing than the mountain of hotel brochures he received, he gives the Dolphin Hotel a call to book a room in 1408, only to be turned down at every request.  After learning from the legal department of his publishing agency that a hotel cannot refuse a room to anyone if it is vacant, Enslin returns to the Dolphin with more power in his punch and is eventually granted access to room 1408.  However, he is not given the key before being urged by the hotel manager Gerald Olin, played beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, to change his mind.  Olin tries everything imaginable to convince Enslin to stay away from room 1408, from offering him a Penthouse suite, Knicks tickets, and the like.  He then pulls out an archive of the multitude of people who have died in room 1408.  The more famous stories Enslin had already researched, but he is taken aback when he learns of the 40-some odd people who died of “natural causes” in the room that never made the local paper.  Still yet, Enslin is determined and eventually secures the key and makes his way to the 14th floor.

From this point, the room, which Olin refers too simply as “an evil room”, begins to work on Enslin’s mind.  First, subtle occurrences happen like chocolates appearing on the pillows and the toilet paper being folded and replenished.  But quickly more alarming and disturbing events take place, such as Enslin slicing open his hand when the window randomly shuts, ghosts walking across the room and throwing themselves out the window, and most horrific, Enslin begins to hear and see images of his daughter.

The madness continues until we finally reach a place of sensory overload – the room is being flooded with water from a painting of a ship that hangs on the wall, the temperature goes to below freezing and the room fills with snow and ice, and the walls begin to crumble and bleed.  Enslin is near insanity when he finally is able to make a connection on his laptop computer through Yahoo messenger and a webcam to his wife.  Although she is reluctant at first, she eventually tells Enslin that she will “be right over.”   The movie has one “false ending” where it appears that Enslin’s experience was all a dream (thankfully it wasn’t).  Finally, Enslin decides that the only “real” thing he knows of for sure is fire.  So, he sets the room on fire in hopes of destroying it once and for all, taking himself down if need be.  Enslin ends up surviving and is reunited with his wife.  The film ends with Enslin listening to the tape recorder he was using to record his thoughts throughout the night.  On the recording both Enslin and his wife hear their daughter, Katie, talking with Enslin.  And the movie ends.

1408 spoke to me on a level that was rather gut wrenching – not so much because of the scares or imagery, but because of the true horror hidden away in Mike Enslin’s heart; the death of his daughter.  Room 1408, although certainly scary and menacing on its own, showed its true horrific nature by the way it brought to the forefront of Enslin’s life the absence of the thing he most desperately wants – his family.  In an even deeper sub-theme, Enslin is wrestling with the legitimacy and effectiveness of how they treated Katie during her last days.  They affirmed Katie’s questions about being with God and an afterlife, assuring her that “they would see her again” and so on.  Now that Katie is dead, Enslin is bothered by their lack of encouraging Katie to fight for her life, instead of filling her head with “pipe dreams.”  The performance by John Cusack is so well done that I was driven further into his sorrow and guilt than I was deeper into the concerns of room 1408.  Whenever a horror movie, while watching it, causes you to reflect on your own life without worrying too much about the on screen carnage, something special is happening.  The look of contentment on Enslin’s face in the last few seconds of the film when he audibly hears the voice of Katie perfectly sums up the entirety of the movie.  Enslin finds at least a modicum of peace in life because he knows Katie, in fact, lives on.

The direction, cinematography, and sound of 1408 were all brilliantly done.  If I were looking for any negative criticism, I would offer two small points:

1.  I felt the “evil” of the room was a bit exaggerated in its visual telling.  In other words, it was just a little too much.  Although creative and very well done from an effects standpoint, I think it could have been dialed back a few degrees and been even more effective.

2.  At the end, Enslin decides rather certainly that fire is the only “real thing.”  Why?  He has experienced everything under the sun, from heat to snow and ice to crumbling of walls.  Why is fire the one things he knows is real?

It doesn’t matter though because the movie is so well acted and directed that the “escape” of Enlsin from the room takes second place to the emotional heartache he has endured.  This is a very good movie.  Take a look.

Click Here to purchase 1408

Black Swan – Review

Black Swan – Review

Feb 23, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010

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.

Hatchet 2 – Review

Hatchet 2 – Review

Feb 22, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Adam Green, 2010

Hatchet 2 begins the action immediately where the first film ended with Marybeth (Danielle Harris) in the boat being attacked by Victor Crowley.  She manages to escape by being helped out of the water by Jack Cracker and is taken to his cabin in the midst of the swamp.  While there, Marybeth begins to learn more about the lurid history of Victor Crowley and how her family played a pivotal role in his death.  After being kicked out of Jack Cracker’s cabin (after he learns who she really is), she makes her way to Reverend Zombie’s voodoo shop (portrayed by Tony Todd) where she demands to learn the full truth of her past and Victor Crowley.   Come to find out, Marybeth’s father was one of the three kids who set fire to the cabin when Victor was a boy that ultimately brought about his death.  Marybeth is determined to go back to the swamp and bring her father and brother back so she can bury them and, if necessary, kill Victor Crowley once and for all.  She pleads with Zombie to help her and after a moment of hesitation, he agrees.  However, he first makes Marybeth bring along her uncle and also convenes a group of hunters and guides for the trip.

Well, from this point on Hatchet 2 delivers what you would expect.  A bunch of people being killed in the swamp by a ticked off bad guy.  We eventually learn that Marybeth’s uncle and one of the hunters named Trent were the other two kids who set fire to Crowley’s place.  Zombie believes that if Victor kills all three of his murderers, he will have his revenge and will disappear.  He believes his plan worked perfectly after watching “Uncle Bob” meet his demise.  However, once Marybeth catches on to Zombie’s intentions, she enlightens him to the truth; Uncle Bob was actually just a friend – her real uncle died when she was 12 from leukemia.  Uh oh.  That means Victor is still alive and finally comes after Zombie himself.  The film ends with Marybeth using Victor’s own hatchet against him, slashing him at least 20 times and then sealing the deal with a shotgun blast to the face.

I walked away from Hatchet 2 feeling much the say way I did about the original film; this was fun, gory, campy, and totally predictable.  I mentioned in my review of Hatchet that Adam Green was not necessarily trying to break new ground with his movie but was attempting to take a tried and true formula and do it well.  I feel the same way about Hatchet 2.  It is nice to see Danielle Harris of Halloween fame take over the role of Marybeth and amazingly, much of her mannerisms and tone still reflect the scared little “Jamie” from Halloween 4 and 5. Having said that, Tamara Feldman, who portrayed Marybeth in the original film, did a better job with the character than did Danielle Harris.  Harris is a horror legend because of her involvement in the Halloween franchise, but she is not a very good actor and leaves the film feeling very amateurish.

Concerning the direction offered by Adam Green, I just can’t figure this guy out.  He has moments of beauty where all the actors and the action seem to be in the  perfect place, followed by several minutes of sloppiness that scream “movie college” quality.  He continues to pay homage to classic movies of old, perhaps the most obvious being the very ending.  As Marybeth is chopping away at Victor, she repeats “die” several times, linking the ending of Hatchet 2 to the classic Corey Feldman ending of Friday the 13th part 4.

The gore is bountiful and executed well, with perhaps the best kill scene in the movie coming at the very beginning with the death of Jack Cracker.  His intestines are ripped from his body and as he tries to crawl away, he is pulled back by his innards.  Then, Victor wraps his intestines around his throat and chokes him until Cracker’s head explodes.

But it is the story itself that falls away and never comes back.  The mythology of Crowley is repeated time and again throughout the film, even with a pointless summation by Zombie at the end to make sure we all “get it.”  It seems that Adam Green wanted to take his story a bit more seriously this time around and whereas the original movie was a jolly mixture of laughs and gore, Hatchet 2 doesn’t know if it wants to be funny or serious.  Unfortunately, Green opted for the latter a bit too much and we are left longing for the overall feel of the original.

I was disappointed in this second installment.  Green initially said he was going to make 4 Hatchet movies.  After the release of this installment, he retracted his statement.  It could very well be that we have not seen the last of Victor Crowley, but we might have seen the last of him being directed by Adam Green.

Click Here to purchase Hatchet 2

The Thing – Review

The Thing – Review

Feb 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by John Carpenter, 1982

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.

Click Here to purchase The Thing.