Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Review

Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Review

Oct 13, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, 1949

It was the very witching hour of midnight when Ichabod pursued his travel home
The sky grew darker and darker as one by one the stars winked out their lights
The driving clouds obscured the moon from sight
Never had the schoolmaster felt so melancholy. . .so utterly alone

And with those words from the legendary Bing Crosby who narrated this timeless classic, Ichabod Crane begins his journey through the dreaded wooded home of the headless horseman.

Disney’s adaptation of  Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was originally packaged in a film called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and coupled with a version of The Wind in the Willows starring Mr. Toad. After its initial release, Disney cut the two segments to run individually. It was not until a later home video release that the two were packaged together once again in the form of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It was one of those individual showings of Sleepy Hollow that I, as a young boy, first viewed the story with wide eyes.

Disney has made a career of walking the line between funny and scary in all of its “haunted” endeavors. For the Haunted Mansion attraction lovers out there, the stories are legendary of how creators Marc Davis and Claude Coats slightly disagreed on whether the attraction should be more spooky or kooky. When it was all said and done, it seems they created a perfect balance between the two (interestingly, one of the first design concepts for the Haunted Mansion was a continuation of the story of Ichabod Crane). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow also finds the perfect balance of fright and delight. The image of Ichabod himself lets the viewer know we shouldn’t be taking this too seriously, but the build up to his encounter with the Headless Horseman is, at times, very creepy. Children will be scared just enough to keep watching, perhaps with one eye covered. Could this animated feature be a reason why I love horror so much today? Very possible.

One of the best features of Disney’s Sleep Hollow, and perhaps one of the most surprising, is its remarkable faithfulness to Irving’s original story. It is not exaggeration to suggest that this little animated feature from the Walt Disney company is one of the most faithful to the original story of any movie ever produced on Ichabod’s fight with the headless spectre. Two of the essential elements remain in this version, those being a romantic telling of the story and an ambiguous ending. Disney actually leaves the viewer wondering whether or not Ichabod survived the flaming pumpkin head being hurled at him across the bridge of safety. Such a conclusion is a rare thing for an animated children’s tale.

The visual payoff is well worth the wait in Sleepy Hollow. From start to finish the animation is crisp and effective, but the animators give us something special at the unveiling of the Headless Horseman. I’m not sure there is a more visually engaging scene in any animated feature. Although technology has certainly advanced the options for animators today, I would put Sleepy Hollow up against any modern feature in terms of its effectiveness and mood.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the song Brom Bones sings at the Van Tassel farm during the famous Van Tassel Fall Festival (incidentally, Brom was the inspiration for the famous Disney character Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). His song occurs just before the end of the party when Ichabod would be traveling home through the forest. It takes the viewer about 6 times watching the movie to finally catch on that the background singers, mostly female, are an essential part of the song. Unfortunately you cannot make out what they are singing very well. This is significant because at one point these background vocalists sing the most important part of the story:

Brom:  “For once you cross that bridge my friends…..”
Background Voices:  “the ghost is through, his power ends.”
(Watch the video below at 3:00 to hear this part of the song)

So, without those background voices, we would miss that the Headless Horseman loses his power across the bridge. That is my only complaint with the film, although after you know what the background voices actually say, it becomes a fun part of the movie.

Disney’s version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow remains, after all these years, the best. Do yourself a favor – go watch it.

Red State – Review

Red State – Review

Oct 10, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Kevin Smith, 2011

It is always interesting to me when directors from outside the genre try their hand at horror films.  Which of the horror conventions will they adhere to?  Which ones will they re-interpret?  Will they come to the genre with enough of an understanding of its motifs and themes to produce a film that fans of the genre will embrace?  When the carpetbagging director is Kevin Smith, who has exclusively directed increasingly mainstream, raunchy comedies, things are even more interesting.  Red State, Smith’s first genre film, unfortunately, is a mixed bag.  It does a decent job at mimicking a recently popular horror sub-genre, but that sub-genre is close to played out even in the hands of experienced directors.  Sadly, what Smith brings in terms of humor and subversive point of view does little to raise the film above the level the typical direct-to-video horror film.  On a more positive note, there does seem to be a respect for the genre and Smith at no point seems to be slumming.  He saves his mocking tone for the “Christian” group at the heart of his exploitation piece.

Early in the film, we get a glimpse of the church people that are at the heart of the horror of Red State.  Clearly modeled on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, our protagonists see the church members protesting at the funeral of a gay teen, and we learn that most of the town sees the national attention they are bringing in as an embarassment.  As targets of satire and ridicule go, it’s hard to find more obvious and deserving ones than a group that regularly stages protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who have died serving their country.   When three teenage boys out for a night of debauchery fall into the hands of the church, we learn that insensitivity is far from their worst sin.

Targeting a fringe group as it does, Red State didn’t come off as nearly as anti-Christian as I expected it to be.  Most of the film’s anger is aimed directly at the Phelps stand-in, Pastor Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks.  Parks is brilliant here, giving one of the best performances is a horror movie that I’ve seen in years.  The performance is key as it keeps the film from being a shotgun blast at religion and instead makes it a sniper shot to the head of those that would use a cocktail of religion and charisma to lead their followers astray.

Parks’s performance aside, the best thing that can be said about the rest of the film’s actors is no one really embarrasses themselves.  I like John Goodman, but he is given so little of interest to say or do in the film that he blends in to the background.  The three teens that get themselves captured by the cult at the beginning of the film are competent, but interchangeable.

The direction and photography of the film are also simply average.  It is Smith’s best shot film to date, but that isn’t saying much.  The writing is, as we should expect, well above that of the average B-grade horror film.  Parks is given some great dialogue and nearly everyone gets off a couple of good lines, and Smith fights off what must have been a strong urge to put “funny” lines in the character’s mouths.  There is humor here, but it is satirical, ironic, and surprisingly subtle.

I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan and, obviously, a horror enthusiast.  I wanted Red State to be great, but it is simply average for a decently-budgeted, independent horror film.  It isn’t the catastrophe some critics accused it of being after the early screenings, but there isn’t much in Red State to recommend it over any other B-grade horror romp.

ATM – Review

ATM – Review

Oct 7, 2012

reviewed by Melissa
directed by David Brooks, 2012

I sat down to watch ATM with zero knowledge about the film except that it takes place in an ATM enclosure. I was excited to view the film because I love movies that take place in one location, and every person I know has made at least one ill advised late night stop to the ATM. I was also delighted to discover Chris Sparling was the director of ATM, as I am a fan of his claustrophobic movie Buried.

ATM begins with three co-workers; Emily, David, and Cory; leaving a work Christmas party to go home. David has finally worked up the courage to ask Emily out and offers her a ride home. Cory, the ultimate jerk, talks David into giving him a ride home too. Cory decides he is hungry on the way home and needs to stop at the ATM to get cash for a pizza. They find an ATM that is a building that you must swipe your card for the door to open.  Cory’s ATM card does not work and David goes in to help, who is then followed by Emily.  Once all three of them are in the building they notice someone standing on the outside. The man, whose face we never see, begins to play a cat and mouse game with them that lasts throughout the rest of the night.

The premise of ATM was excellent but the execution has severe flaws. The acting was subpar at best with Alice Eve’s portrayal of Emily being completely unbelievable. Josh Peck plays Cory and does a decent job of being a real jerk if not a little bit over the top. Brian Geraghty is by far the strongest actor in the film, although he plays David a little too nice for my taste. The main problem I have with the movie is the characters make terrible decisions which only serve to extend the length of the film. The plot moves fairly slow and very predictable. I had figured out the ending twenty minutes into the movie. I was very disappointed in the film because I think the premise has great potential. I would not recommend this movie except to teach you a lesson about late night stopping at the ATM.

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.

Roman – Review

Roman – Review

Oct 1, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Angela Bettis, 2006

In 2002, Lucky McKee directed Angela Bettis in May about a troubled young woman who is excruciatingly lonely and obsessed with finding true love.  In 2006, McKee and Bettis traded roles for the unsettling picture, Roman.  McKee wrote the screenplays for both films.

Roman (Lucky McKee) has a mind-numbing job with mind-numbed coworkers.  He doesn’t usually say much but listening to the drivel of his coworkers, it’s not hard to understand why someone once quipped that silence is golden.  Each monotonous day after the next, he returns to his Spartan apartment and stares at the wall.  One day, to mix things up, he uses cigarette ash to draw the outline of a television on the wall to pretend to watch it.  Every day, at the same time, his cute neighbor (Kristen Bell) walks past his apartment and lovesick Roman makes a point of watching her collect her mail.  Only she can make him smile.  Consumed with romantic sexual fantasies, Roman’s day revolves around those five minutes when he can catch a glimpse of dream girl walking past.  It’s a fine line between infatuation and creepy obsession.  This story of a social misfit almost becomes a sweet romance when things take a turn for the worse, and then a turn for the macabre.  Guilt, obsession and brutal isolation drive him straight downtown to crazy town.

In his fantastical imaginings of dream girl, he gives her the name Isis which is fitting both since Isis is the Egyptian goddess who represented the ideal wife and mother but also because of the how the name sounds like the word “ice.”  You’ll see what I mean.  The myth of Isis also includes the topic of dismemberment.

Pulling him back from the brink of complete lunacy is his encounter with another pretty girl in his apartment complex.  Eva, played by Nectar Rose (her real name) is an artistic Mother Nature sprite of a girl whose enchanting free spirit gives Roman another shot at sanity and happiness.  On the outside, Eva is a walking personification of a literal garden of delights, but there’s a serpent in her tree.  Roman finds that Eva harbors secret shadows of her own.  On their first date, they catch a performance of Hedda Gabler, a play about suicide.  “Isn’t it beautiful?” Eva moons.  Oh yes, the girl has issues.

The first dream girl, “Isis,” was never really a true person for Roman.  She was nothing more than a collection of pretty parts he desired to possess.  With Eva, things are different.  She breaks the spell of Isis and makes him fall in love with her as a person, complexities and all.

Roman is a romantic, obsessed with his own twisted version of romance.  Lucky McKee plays the lead perfectly.  Even though he’s completely bonkers, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him.  There are moments of sweetness in the story, moments when you root for Roman to find true love with one of his dream girls.  Just when you think he’s emerging from madness to a real normal life, everything gets flushed down the toilet.  Roman is a strange love story populated with badly damaged, though not unrecognizable, people.  It’s a heartbreaking little movie that I appreciate more every time I watch it.  (There’s a really bizarre little music video that exemplifies the off-beat scary sadness of the film that I couldn’t erase from my brain.  Just look up Burro Boy on Google.  You can thank me later.)

Hobo With A Shotgun – Review

Hobo With A Shotgun – Review

Oct 6, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Jason Eisener, 2011

Hobo With A Shotgun is a Canadian horror exploitation film directed by Jason Eisener.  The film was originally a fake trailer to promote the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, but due to popularity was transformed into a full-length picture.  The movie stars film legend Rutger Hauer.

The central theme of Hobo With A Shotgun is anything but original.  A small town called “Hope Town” is run by a greedy, sadistic villian known as “The Drake” and his two severely demented sons, Ivan and Slick.  I must admit to chuckling when I realized I had just partly described the plot to Roadhouse.  Anyway, the film opens with Slick and Ivan brutally killing The Drake’s brother to set an example to the town folk, who idly stand by and watch the carnage as if they were zombies who could care less.  After the decapitation of the brother, the towns people just slowly go back to their lives as if nothing had ever happened.  The hobo finally has enough when he witnesses Slick attempt to sexually assault and kill a girl in an arcade, prompting him to attack Slick and save the girl.  The hobo drags Slick to the local police station and demands to speak with the Sheriff.  Unfortunately, the Sheriff and the police are corrupt and eating out of The Drake’s hand.  The hobo is knifed and thrown out on the street.

Soon, the hobo meets up with Abby, the girl he saved from the hands of Slick, and she nurses him back to health in her small apartment.  The two become friends and decide to start a new life in a different city.  The can’t leave town fast enough, however, because Ivan and Slick show up to finish off Abby.  They severely injure Abby, but the hobo is able to save her and kill Slick.  What remains is a final showdown between the hobo, The Drake, and the town people who decide they have finally had enough.  The hobo sacrifices his life so that no one else will get hurt, taking down The Drake with him.  There is hope in Hope Town.

Hobo With A Shotgun has a very positive reputation among horror fans.  After hearing so much praise for the film, I was eager to experience this “instant classic” for myself.  I must admit to being somewhat disappointed.  The exploitation genre is a difficult one to master.  One the one hand, one must recognize that making broad and over-the-top statements about the underlying issue is a necessary component of exploitation.  On the other hand, a successful exploitation film understands how those sensationalist images adds to the story being presented and doesn’t turn on itself by simply seeking to shock the audience without any ongoing connection.  Anyone can put together a bunch of violent, gross scenes.  It takes talent to make them tell a compelling story.   At the end of the day, Hobo With A Shotgun is just too much violence with not enough story.  The story isn’t meant to be believable, but still yet, this story is really, really unbelievable.  There are still fun moments and interesting deaths, but overall I found myself somewhat bored with the “how crazy can we go” violence and mayhem.  Probably worth a viewing just for Hauer’s performance, but doesn’t live up to the hype.