Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Them – Review

Them – Review

Oct 5, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006

The French-language film Them is a part of the seemingly rapidly growing horror sub-genre commonly referred to as home invasion movies.  There are older examples (Wait Until Dark, most importantly), but the genre really seemed to enter the public consciousness with Haneke’s infamous Funny Games (1997) which was remade in Hollywood by the same director ten years later and was controversial even then.  Them shares a number of plot elements and themes with Funny Games, but where Funny Games was a meditation on the influence of violent cinema, Them seems more of a concession to mankind’s animal natures and the banality of evil.

The film opens with a effective prologue wherein a mother and daughter are murdered after a minor car accident by unseen killers.  We don’t know who the killers are,, and we don’t know if they caused the accident on purpose or simply took advantage of weakened prey.  When Clem, a French expatriate teaching at a French-language school in Budapest, passes by the accident the next day, we know that whoever killed the mom and daughter are close by.  That is all the threat we need for the film  to start building its suspense.  We see Clem return to her dilapidated, isolated country home to her writer husband, Lucas.

It isn’t long before the couple is under attack.  As they attempt to fight off the intruders, Clem is revealed to be vastly more competent and quick-thinking than her husband. Lucas is a man of words, not actions and is soon nearly incapacitated, but Clem quickly recognizes the danger they are in and starts to formulate an escape plan.  It was nice to see the role of protector and helpless victim reversed for much of the film.

Once the killers are on the scene, Them becomes a tense chase film that gave me the kind of nervous expectation of the worst possible outcome that I got from Spielberg’s tight chase film, Duel. The pursuers in Them remain faceless for most of the film, as seems to be a common theme in home invasion horror films.  More than their facelessness, I was disturbed with the killers’ lack of voices.  The film has very little in the way of a score or soundtrack, but the sound-design gives us a world filled with creepy noises (creaking doors, screeching animals, slamming doors, the white noise of a television).  It is, however, the bug-like clicking sound made by one the killers that really got under my skin.  It kind of sounded like a man calling a dog, but more mechanical and inhuman (tick-tick-tick-tick-tick).  We learn late in the film how the killers are making the noise, but that revelation makes the sound more creepy, not less.

Them doesn’t have the most controversial elements of Funny Games because the focus is on the chase, not the torture and psychological terrorism of the victims.  Still, once the killers are revealed, the film forces us to ask serious questions about society and human nature. I have seen it suggested that the film is an allegory about the fears French people have of their “primitive” neighbor Romania.  There are certainly some stranger-in-a-strange-land tropes, but considering that the fake “based on a true story” elements claim to be about a an Austrian couple in France, it seems more likely that the film is a response to and iteration on concepts from Funny Games, an Austrian film about a German family in Austria.

I highly recommend Them. The film is intense from start to finish and has a deep and disturbing theme that I can’t really talk about without spoiling the ending.  I think it is safe to say that, like many horror films, Them argues that human beings capable of awful violence are all around us and that we may never understand what drives someone to kill, especially if what drives them is simply boredom.

Deranged – Review

Deranged – Review

Oct 4, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, 1974

Deranged is a mostly forgotten 1974 psychological horror film based on the life of legendary serial killer Ed Gein. The movie follows the life of Ezra Cobb (a great name) who must deal with the pending death of his Christian fundamentalist mother who has raised him to hate women. Soon after her death, Cobb becomes convinced she is still alive and subsequently digs up her corpse, places her back in her bedroom, and goes on with life as usual. Well, maybe not as usual because apparently the grief of her death followed by the delusion of her coming back to life made Ezra snap into, well, a deranged lunatic. He begins digging up other corpses to place in various parts of the house and when that no longer satisfies his needs, he goes looking for young women.

This little movie has several interesting tie-ins with iconic horror names. First, the movie was released in February of 1974, the same year the superior film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. Perhaps surprisingly, TCM was released in October of that year. Most who see Deranged will assume it heavily borrowed from TCM in much of its imagery and content, but both films were operating independently of the other and were released in the same year. It seems that 1974 was the year to begin the “Ed Gein” inspiration for serial killers in horror films. To be fair, Hitchcock started the “Gein” revolution in his 1960 classic Psycho, but since 1974 virtually every horror movie that chronicles the life of a serial killer cites Ed Gein as the influence behind the madness. Deranged is probably the movie among them all which most accurately depicts the historical Gein.

Second, the make-up effects and the corpses were created by a very young Tom Savini, a name that is synonymous with horror. Savini, of course, is famous for his work on the Dead trilogy and Friday the 13th. Although this is fairly primitive work compared to what we have become accustomed to from Savini, the effects are nevertheless effective and at times disturbing.

Third, Deranged was co-directed by Alan Ormsby, a name that is sadly unfamiliar to many horror fans. Ormsby was the lead actor and writer for the 1972 cult film Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. Ormsby has had success outside of the horror genre as well, co-writing the script for The Substitute in 1996 which launched a successful series.

Fourth, this film is worth watching for the performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb. Most folks will know Blossom for his creepy little role in Home Alone, but I always think of him as the preacher from the Sam Raimi directed The Quick and the Dead. Blossom not only looks like the historical Gein but perfectly captures the balance between a delicate, harmless, lonely man and a brutal, sadistic killer. Although TCM is a much better film than Deranged in many key areas, the only thing lacking from TCM is a true “Gein” character. Blossom nails it.

Deranged is a horror movie that must be watched and appreciated with its historical context in mind. Although the images and atmosphere of the film are still unsettling today, the content being presented to viewers in 1974 would have been breath-taking. The movie moves along slowly at times, something that is not a good thing with a running time of only 82 minutes. Yet, the realism of a mid-western boy and his mommy who know nothing of life but each other creates a chill that lasts from beginning to end. Deranged is a good movie for horror fans who can appreciate patiently waiting for the visual pay-off while enjoying a beautiful performance from a talented actor. It is recommended as an important and well-done period piece.

May – Review

May – Review

Oct 3, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Lucky McKee, 2002

“If your eye offends you, pluck it out!” – Jesus

The horror industry has generated a zillion different incarnations of vampires, zombies and ghosts.  What you see much less often are reiterations of the Frankenstein myth.  Lucky McKee wrote and directed this 2002 cult favorite.  It’s a body horror gem that verges on black comedy at times.

When the title character was a little girl, she was afflicted with a lazy eye and made to wear a patch to school.  “Are you a pirate?” one little boy taunted.  She was isolated by the experience of having an imperfect physical trait.  Most of us do not grasp the effect which extreme solitude can have upon a sensitive child, especially when it pertains to a bodily feature.  What little bit we see of May’s parents suggests they too could’ve used a few hours upon a therapist’s couch.  May’s only friend was a doll.  And such a doll.  Some people find dolls kind of creepy.  But this doll is creepy with the volume set to eleven, let me tell you.

Later, grown-up May works at a veterinarian clinic.  We quickly learn that she has become infatuated with Adam, a mechanic and aspiring filmmaker played by Jeremy Sisto.  Her awkward attempts to make him notice her are humorous and endearing.  Angela Bettis combines the right proportions of allure and cluelessness.

In one of her first conversations with Adam, May asks, “Don’t you think I’m weird?”  “I like weird,” he says.  They both seem to really be surprised by each other.  Eating sandwiches in the park, she tells him that she works at an animal hospital doing tasks that a lot of people consider gross.  He seizes the challenge saying, “Go ahead.  Disgust me.”  She proceeds to relate a truly repulsive episode that appears to sour even Adam’s appetite.  When he shows her his apartment, he’s impressed that she doesn’t recoil at his macabre collection of horror movie related artifacts.  Later, Adam presents May a private screening of his film about two lovers who become so carried away with their lovemaking that they literally cannibalize each other.  It’s played for whimsy as well as shock.  He’s anxious about what she’ll think, worried that she’ll be turned off by the dark side of his personality that he’s usually so reticent to share.  Her response to his movie was not quite what he expected.  “I think it’s sweet,” she says, and moves in for a snuggle.  It seems he’s met his match and then some.  But there’s weird and then there’s weird.  May is weird.

With each person May meets, she fixates on a particular part of that person’s body.  For instance, she loves Adam’s hands.  Anna Farris plays May’s flirtatious lesbian coworker.  May loves her neck.  Another girl is prized for her beautiful “gams.”  And a boy for his arms.  There are so many beautiful parts.  It’s just hard to find someone who has the whole package.

McKee’s writing and direction are critical for the success of this picture.  But it all hinges on Angela Bettis as May.  This is an extremely challenging role.  One could play the lunatic-slasher-serial-killer or the sympathetic-cute-nerdy-girl looking for her prince charming or the damaged-stalker a’ la Fatal Attraction relatively easily, but it takes a true dramatic maestro to pull all three together into one.

While I think it’s a good movie, it’s not without flaws.  The part about the blind children is not as exploitative as you might expect, but I found it hard to understand how it adds anything important to the story.

I’ve seen May twice.  Once in 2003 and once last weekend (2012).  It wasn’t as good for me the second time round as I remembered from the first time.  I think it’s too polished and would play better with a lower budget feel.

Maniac – Review

Maniac – Review

Nov 25, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by William Lustig, 1980

In their initial meeting about the film, director William Lustig instructed actress and the film’s protagonist Caroline Munro to “watch Halloween. . .this is how movies are being made now.”  Such a directorial instruction leaves little doubt to the film’s intentions and design.  And yet Maniac offers something quite different than its Halloween predecessor.

This 1980 slasher/splatter film is follows the life of Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who is a lonely landlord and demented psychopathic killer.  His small apartment is furnished with mannequins who are adorned with real human hair from Zito’s female victims.  We learn that Frank has a serious problem with women and is unable to be around a female too long without going into a rage and killing her.  After the death, he scalps his victim and take their hair back to his place as a token of his accomplishment.  As the film progresses, we learn that Frank was physically abused by his prostitute mother and he is unable to ultimately discern between her face and the face of his victims.  In a rather chilling climatic scene, Frank hallucinates and believes all the mannequins in his apartment are coming to life to kill him.  The police find him dead the next morning.

On the surface, Maniac seems like a cheap, cheesy, typical 80’s slasher flick.  I suppose in some ways it lives up to that assessment.  But there is more to this movie than meets the eye.  First Joe Spinell delivers a weighty and memorable performance as Frank Zito.  The American-Italian demeanor works perfectly for this troubled soul who lives in the heart of New York City.  There are a couple of memorable scenes where Frank is describing his troubled childhood and they come across as sincere and truly motivational.  Unlike Halloween, we not only get to see what causes Frank to kill, but we grasp a sense of the darkest of human conditions; not being loved.  When Frank meets Anna (Caroline Munro) we see a different side of the serial killer and have momentary hope that things will change.  Those hopes are crushed as we watch Frank slip deeper and deeper into his psychosis.

The movie is also memorable for its gore.  One scene in particular portrays what is perhaps one of the most realistic and graphic deaths I have seen in horror.  It is the infamous “disco boy” death where a young Tom Savini gets his head blown off inside a car.  Frank jumps on the hood, points a shotgun through the windshield, and pulls the trigger.  It really has to be seen to be believed, the realism is simply incredible.

Although Maniac has moments of slowly moving along with the story, the psychological element of Frank mixed with some beautiful gore effects makes this a slasher film worth viewing.  I have heard rumors of a remake (big surprise) and will be interested to see how the actor who plays Frank (perhaps Elijah Wood?) deals with the delicate character of Frank Zito.

Paranormal Activity 3 – Review

Paranormal Activity 3 – Review

Oct 24, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2011

I was very excited last year when previews revealed that the second Paranormal Activity was going to stick to the “found footage” formula of the first film and not take The Blair Witch Project approach of attempting to shift the franchise onto a more traditional horror film path.  And, though I didn’t find the film to be as intensely jump-inducing as the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 was a solid follow up which was a big hit with audiences if not with critics.  The huge box-office take meant we were nearly guaranteed a part three that stuck to the formula, and it has arrived, only two years after the nationwide release of the first film (but four years after the original began making the festival circuit in an effort to find a distributor).  Paranormal Activity 3 is a prequel to the first two films that revolves around the two sisters from Paranormal Activity 2.  I was interested to see what the writers came up with to explain the events of the previous films, but my fear going in was simply that the “been there, done that” feeling would be overwhelming.  I need not have worried.  Handing over the directing reins to Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, directors of the intriguing “documentary” Catfish proves to be a good move as they manage to inject a fair amount of fresh ideas and energy into franchise.

Setting the film in the 1980s means we leave behind the multi-camera, full house (and even poolside) coverage of the second film.  Instead, Dennis, a wedding videographer, is forced to choose just a few locations to investigate the noises and strange happenings in the home he shares with his girlfriend, Julie, and her two young daughters, Katie and Kristi—the sisters from the second film who make a brief appearance early on to tie the event of that film to this one.  The film attempts to use Dennis’s obsession with finding out what is going on combined with his voyeuristic impulses to explain why there is always a camera filming, even in the most mundane moments.  It doesn’t work entirely.  There are times when you can’t help but wonder why he has the camera out.

The big innovation for the film comes from Dennis mounting one of his huge 80s video on the base of an oscillating fan.  The back and forth motion of the camera gives us a break from playing creepy Where’s Waldo with the images from the static camera, and there is simply a great tension waiting for the camera to swing back to something that was only hinted at on the previous pass.  This device is put to best use in a tense scene with a horror film staple, the babysitter.

There are more scares and jumpy moments here than in the first two films but the director’s manage to work them in without compromising the tension that comes with each jump cut to another camera position.  I watched this with a packed crowd and, if the screams and laughter were any indication, the formula is still working.

I’m happy to say that if you liked the first two films, you are almost guaranteed to like this one.  Even if you weren’t quite sold on those films, the improvements here might make Paranormal Activity 3 at least worth a rental.

The Strangers – Review

The Strangers – Review

Aug 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2008

The Strangers is a 2008 “home invasion” movie starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman.  After turning down a marriage proposal, Kristen (Tyler) accompanies a distressed James (Speedman) back to an isolated house where he had earlier decorated with an abundance of rose petals anticipating a “yes” to the big question.  Why they thought it would be a good idea to follow through with a plan to spend a weekend in the middle of nowhere together after such an alarming denial to marriage is beyond me.  But, they finally arrive at the house.  When James heads back out to pick Kristen up some cigarettes at 4 in the morning (really?), she is visited by three weird strangers and the terror begins.  They torment her, toy with her, and give up endless opportunities to kill just to keep up the fun.  James returns from the store and the rest of the movie is them trying to keep their sanity and their lives.  The movie ends with the couple finally being tied up in a couple of chairs, stabbed a few times, and then killed.

If my above summary of the film lacked any kind of gusto, it is because I found the movie to be dull, slow, and pointless.  The strangers just draw out their torment of the couple for way too long.  About 15 times throughout the film, there will be a “stranger” behind Kristen, easily ready to kill her, tie her up, slap her, poke her in the eye, or anything, but instead they decide to run away, disappear, and then reappear for a similar “scare.”  It just gets repetitive really fast.  The direction was good, but the couple just does too many silly things.  For example, they receive perfect cell phone service in the house (which was refreshing, the writers didn’t opt for the “no service” angle), but their cell phone dies.  Not to worry, Kristen has a charger!  But for some inexplicable reason, when she plugs the charger into the phone and into an outlet, she doesn’t turn it on to make the call!  It is as if she doesn’t realize that cell phones operate just fine while they are plugged in and charging.  Little thing like that add up to a fairly high annoyance level.  The pay off isn’t a pay off at all and the ending leaves us scratching our heads – did we really just watch 1 hour of senseless “teasing” for a lifeless, emotionless finish?  Yes.  Yes we did.

Unless you are just a die-hard home invasion freak, this one is very much avoidable.  Not terrible, but not good.