Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Monster – Review

The Monster – Review

Jan 31, 2017

reviewed by Scott
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Chernobyl Diaries – Review

Chernobyl Diaries – Review

Jun 3, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Bradley Parker, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries is a 2012 horror film written and produced by Oren Peli, the mastermind behind the Paranormal Activity franchise. The movie follows a group of young people, two of which are brothers, in a vacation across Europe. The older and less stable brother, Paul, decides to make a slight detour from their Moscow itinerary and instead embarks on an “Extreme Tour” of Pripyat, an abandoned town that was immediately evacuated after the famous Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Although Paul’s younger brother Chris is against the idea, the rest of the group agrees to the tour and convinces Chris to come along.

The single owner and operator of the extreme tour is a big Ukrainian named Uri who makes clear that he “works alone.” He takes them in a shoddy van through a “secret” entrance into Pripyat since the main entrance has been blocked by a military squadron. They make their way into the heart of the city and begin the tour process, occasionally receiving short but helpful tips from Uri. After being attacked by a bear, they decide it is time to hit the road – Uri assures them that there will be “no extra charge for bear attack.” Strangely, the leads to the van battery have been shredded, leaving the group stranded in the heart of the city. Since the nearest checkpoint is 13 miles away and hiking at night is too dangerous, everyone agrees to stay in the van until morning.

This is when the chaos begins. For various reasons the group is led out of the van to investigate disturbances and then back into the van to tell everyone to stay put. When Chris becomes seriously injured, three of the friends decide they must find a way out of the city at any cost. Along the way, they discover horrific truths about the abandoned city – it isn’t really abandoned. Mutated creatures, presumably altered by radiation, now survive as zombies apparently under the careful watch of the Ukrainian military. By the end of the film, two of the friends have survived the attacks from the creatures, but unfortunately have to contend with being discovered by the military.

A glimpse on RottenTomatoes.com quickly reveals how unimpressed critics have been with Chernobyl Diaries – it currently holds a 22% rotten rating. The scathing reviews from the critics once again demonstrate a lack of appreciation for horror conventions. Let’s state the obvious right from the start – yes, this film incorporates a lot of tried and true horror cliches; the tour guide is the first to die, the setting is an isolated location, the vehicle won’t start, most of the lighting from the film comes from flashlights, and so on. Herein lies the basic distinction between most movie critics and most horror fans – the inclusion of these elements does not preclude a positive viewing experience for horror fans. In fact, they quite possibly could set the stage for everything we love, just so long as it is done well. That is what makes a horror fan a horror fan. We aren’t just looking for the next unique, never explored concept in film making (although it is great when that comes along!), but we instead are looking for horror films that do things well, even if it is a concept we have seen 1,000 times before.

With that in mind, Chernobyl Diaries is worth a look. The blending of a historical, disastrous event with a fictional horror story creates a terrific atmospheric setting. The creation of Pripyat is incredibly well done with the center piece being the famous Pripyat Ferris Wheel (as seen in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare). I found myself wishing the “tour” would continue a little longer just so I could learn a little more about the ghost town and nature of the evacuation. This is one of the those movies where you come home and immediately Google the real Pripyat to see how much of the film was historically accurate.

The creatures themselves were fairly bland – we never get a good view of them and they remain blurred most of the movie. As a matter of fact, most of the kills and gruesome elements of the movie take place off screen. Nevertheless, there are some effective scare moments and plenty of suspense building silence combined with a few frantic chase scenes.

By far the weakest aspect of the film was the direction of the camera – I just couldn’t help feeling like a high school student somewhat familiar with horror was manning the camera for this film. At times it was very noticeable and distracting. This, of course, is ultimately the job of directory Bradley Parker to make sure he has set up the shot in an effective manner for the camera to work its magic. Although Parker, I think, has some good ideas scattered throughout the film for the camera, I wouldn’t expect him to be directing again anytime soon.

Chernobyl Diaries is a decent, fun, entertaining summer horror movie. Certainly not one for the ages, but also not deserving of the beating it is receiving from the “critics.”

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark – Review

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark – Review

Aug 29, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Troy Nixey, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a 2011 horror film written and produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey.  It is a remake of the 1973 made for television movie of the same name.  The film has a rather eerie 19th century beginning where Emerson Blackwood, a famous artist who owns a beautiful mansion, lures his maid into the basement and promptly knocks her teeth out using a hammer and a flat edged tool of some kind.  We quickly learn that the teeth are for the fairy/goblin like creatures hiding in his furnace who are whispering to him and holding his son as ransom.  They want children’s teeth, not maid’s teeth, and both he and his son ending up perishing.

Fast forward to the present where a father, his girlfriend, and his daughter are moving into the huge house so that he can restore it and hopefully land on the cover of Architectural Digest.  Sally, the daughter, is unhappy about her living conditions as her mother has “shipped” her off to live with her father.  Alex’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) tries to befriend the Sally, but finds out that it will take time to earn her trust.  Soon, the goblin creatures lure Sally into the basement and although she initially thinks they might be friends, she learns that they are evil little creatures who want her teeth.   Meanwhile, Kim is becoming more and more sensitive to Sally’s pleas for help while Alex can only concentrate on his career.  The film climaxes with a “final battle” between the creatures and Sally, ultimately taking the life of Kim but failing to kill Sally and Alex.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a beautifully shot film with memorable direction and gobs of atmosphere.  The opening title sequence is gorgeous and the 19th century scene at the beginning of the film sets a creepy and exciting tone for the remainder of the film.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up.  This is because of two reasons:

First, the creatures are bland.  Nixey (and perhaps del Toro) reveal a full visual of the creatures fairly early in the film.  Although I applaud them for their willingness to show the antagonist in its full form (something del Toro does all the time), I can’t help but being underwhelmed by the revelation.  The creatures look like a humpback piranha with feet.  After the audience is shown the little monsters, they really no longer create any kind horrific expectation.  In other words, you aren’t hiding your eyes in fear that the creatures might pop back on the screen.

Second, the filmmakers utilize whispers extensively throughout the film.  The creatures use whispers to communicate to Sally and although it seems like the concept might work initially, it soon gives way to cheesiness.  Incredibly predictable things like “we want you down here” and “they always come back” are the whispers we are privy to.

Bailee Madison does give a solid performance as Sally and we find a theme in her suffering that del Toro has shown us before; we see something similar in Pan’s Labyrinth.  The movie is enjoyable and worth the viewing time but does not live up to its potential.

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Aug 4, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Jon Favreau, 2011

Several years ago, I started reading a novel about an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Portugal in the Middle Ages.  The townspeople had no frame of reference to interpret their visitors as beings from another planet.  The benighted humans thought the advanced technologies of the spacemen must either be the results of sorcery or divine mediation.  For one reason or another, I never had the chance to finish that book before I had to return it to the library.  I can no longer remember what it was called or who wrote it and haven’t been able to track it down to complete it.

I’m not sure if the book was any good or not, but the premise was very sticky.  The concept of space aliens visiting earth in a time other than the modern one has a lot of untapped potential.  I’m sure there were some episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek that explored this thought.  It’s an underlying concept for Battlestar Gallactica. And who hasn’t heard about the theories of Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods?  But I can’t recall a major motion picture that has dwelt on it.

How would people from times past react to advanced technology?  Though realism is not the first word that comes to mind with this film, it does strike me as genuine that the townspeople initially plug the aliens into their worldview.  They used the only vocabulary they had, wondering if their extraordinary assailants were demons.

Cowboys and Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Keith Carradine.  You can see that the cast is something special.  It even has Sam Rockwell in an all too bland supporting role.  If they could have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson or Robert Downey Jr., it would have been perfect!

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (“Loner” – gan) who wakes up at the beginning of the movie lying in the desert, shoeless, wounded, with a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no memory.  He quickly establishes himself as a man not to be messed with.  Having made his way to town, he finds himself at odds both with the sheriff, played by Keith Carradine and the big-shot rancher tycoon played by Harrison Ford.  This is the best role I’ve seen Ford play in years.

When the town is attacked by flying machines which rope random residents and rustle them away, the guys in the black hats and the guys in the white hats determine to work together, form a posse, and to try to rescue their kinfolk.  Other directors might have utilized energy beams to zap their captives up, but the use of the lasso was a nice western touch.

The men are helped by the always strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson.  As a side note, Olivia Wilde may be the new go-to action movie chic.  Consider Tron and now this.  She doesn’t yet have the fighting cred of Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt).  But she’s a step above the token eye-candy girlfriend who is otherwise pointless to the plot (ie. Megan Fox in Transformers).  Jennifer Garner hasn’t done action in years, so maybe Wilde is the up-and-comer.  Have you started taking Karate lessons yet Liv?

Craig and Ford are the narrative focal points, and Wilde to a lesser extent.  All three of them are more than they first appear.  Wilde is in a category all her own, about which I’ll say no more.  Neither of the fellas is exactly admirable.  The preacher could have been talking about either one when he uttered this astute observation: “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.”  Are our heroes bad or good?  Both of them experience a change by the end of the picture.  Their sufferings and their losses are redemptive.

Most of the jabbering in the press is about the genre-bending mashup of the western and science fiction.  There’s at least one other genre that should get factored into the equation: horror.  If you think a move called Cowboys and Aliens sounds like kid’s stuff, be careful.  This is not a movie for little children.  The monsters are genuinely frightening at times and truly revolting all the time.  There are several jump scares and there are scenes of torture and grisly violence.  Alien abductions constitute a spooky sub-genre of horror and this movie goes there (cf. Fire in the Sky (1993) and The Fourth Kind (2009) et al.).

One moment struck me as particularly poignant.  When Craig finds the pile of gold watches and other personal items of abductees, it resembled a scene from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  The nazis collected the valuables of the concentration camp prisoners into piles.  This hints at the possibility of genocide or human extinction.  It also suggests that otherworldly monsters are not the only ones we need to worry about.  I realize I’m reading between the lines, but I don’t think I’m pressing the imagery too far.

In earlier decades, filmmakers faced what they called the “monster problem.”  That is to say, you had to have a creature that looked real enough to produce the intended effect.  You didn’t want to get everyone all geared up to see a nasty beastie, only to reveal a man in a rubber suit.  Having people laugh at your monster is not desirable.  Personally, I prefer old-school physical special effects whenever possible, but there are limits to what you can do without CGI.  C&A utilized both to the optimum effect.

There were many moments that called to mind sci-fi films that preceded it.  The abductees returning, for instance, reminded me of a similar moment in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  A hat tip to Steven Spielberg, one of the several top shelf executive produces of C&A?

Cowboys and Aliens is a fun adventure.  So many things about it make it cooler than other blockbusters this summer, not the least of which is the cast.  Jon Favreau, the director, is not known for helming subtle thinky pictures, but he does know how to punch you the face with a good time.

What we have here is primarily a blistering fun time, not a message movie.  But if you will indulge this reviewer, one moral of this story seems to be that people can change.  It might just be that we need an impending global catastrophe to get us to wake up.  When the threat is great enough, even cowboys and indians will put aside their differences and work together.  Don’t waste your days on things that don’t matter.  Chasing gold is futile.  Family counts.  Community counts.  Even religious faith is given a nod.  And learn to give your brother a chance.  The town is named Absolution after all.

Pro-Life – Review

Pro-Life – Review

Jul 1, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by John Carpenter, 2006

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

The Monster Squad – Review

The Monster Squad – Review

Jun 26, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Fred Dekker, 1987

Although not financially successful, Fred Dekker managed to direct two of the more memorable and long-lasting cult horror films of the 1980’s – Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.  I recently sat down for a re-visiting of the latter; I was all smiles throughout.

The Monster Squad follows a “club” of children led by Sean (Andre Gower) who gather in a super cool tree house to discuss monsters and mayhem but really have nothing much to do.  Sean sports a “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt most days and entrance into the club is mandated by the passing of a horror movie quiz.  Things begin to heat up for the squad when Sean is given the ancient diary of Van Helsing, the famed vampire killer.  After utilizing the services of the local “Scary German Dude” in order to read the German text of the diary, they realize that a special amulet which maintains the balance between good and evil becomes vulnerable to destruction once every century – and that time is now!  Sean begins piecing local disturbances together and realizes that Dracula has invaded their city in search for the amulet.

In order to assist Dracula in his search for the amulet, he enlists the services of the Wolf-Man, Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein.  The race is on between the monsters and the Monster Squad to find the amulet and use it for their own advantage.  Frankenstein is eventually befriended by the young 5 year old Phoebe and turns against Dracula in the search.  The movie works its way to a climatic finish where a portal into another dimension is opened and the monsters are ultimately cast away for another century of peace.

The Monster Squad has several elements working in its favor that help make this a great movie for all ages.  First, the monsters look incredible.  Legendary monster maker Stan Winston (Aliens, The Thing, Terminator 2) had a bit of a challenge when creating the look for the monsters in the film.  Universal Studios owned the copyright to their “look” of the classic monsters.  Thus, Winston had to create a version of Dracula, Frankenstein, and all the rest that both differed enough from Universal’s monsters to keep them out of court but also make it very clear who these monsters were.  He did a superb job.  The classic monsters are some of the best looking creatures in any horror film and they are fun to watch throughout.

Second, the casting for the film, especially the monsters, was excellent.  Tom Noonan as Frankenstein and Duncan Regehr as Dracula provided powerful, near epic performances for these famed characters of legend.  The children are believable and incredibly funny.  The movie provides some classic one-liners, the most famous being Horace’s proclamation that “Wolfman’s got nards!”  As with many movies of this genre type, the group of children are just a blast to watch and provide a reminder throughout that we should not take this too seriously.

Having said that, the film does go into some fairly dark directions on occasion.  After visiting the “scary Germad dude” for help with the text of Van Helsing’s diary, Dekker takes just enough time to zoom in on the German’s arm as he closes the door – on it is a Nazi concentration camp tattoo, a subtle reminder that not all monsters live in the world of the undead.  Also, at the end of the film, young 5 year old Phoebe is picked up by Dracula.  Dekker does not hold back one iota as Dracula screams into her face, “Give me the amulet you BIT**.”  Pretty dark stuff for this type of film.

All in all, The Monster Squad is memorable, very re-watchable, and worth your time.  Sadly, the box office failure of the film, despite the cult following it enjoys today, added to the disappearing of Fred Dekker’s career.

Click Here to purchase The Monster Squad