Tuesday, November 1, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Phantasm

Roughly 85 trick-or-treaters this year. We had friends over to help hand out goodies for the first time and watched THEM! and our traditional House of Wax as the little ghouls and goblins came and went. Tough finding a movie to watch as the final this year, as I try and make sure it's something both my wife and I can watch. This year I just went with a movie I wanted to see, which was a bit of a mistake as it's more of a cult classic than a mainstream film and Moe ended up not liking it much.

"You play a good game boy, but the game is finished."

Two deaths in my extended family when I was young affected me greatly in different ways. My grandfather's death seemed random and pointless and made me question the world and God and family and pretty much everything. My cousin's murder reinforced those things and I often daydreamed about having the ability go back in time and change things or finding the people responsible and making them pay for what they did. They both made me intimately familiar with the ins and outs of grief.

I think Phantasm is a movie about grief.

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's also a movie about a Tall Man stalking people through marble corridors, murderous dwarfs and killer flying metal balls. I'm just saying on another level it's about a kid trying to come to grips with the deaths of his entire family. I think that might be one of the reasons I liked the movie so much when I first saw it. At some point over the intervening years Phantasm II became my favorite, but I still have a soft spot for the first one - as surreal and random as it is.

And it's pretty surreal and random.

The Medium
J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions got involved in a restoration of Phantasm sometime in 2015 and completed it earlier this year. Phantasm: Remastered got a limited theatrical release and will be out on blu-ray later this year.  It's now available streaming and I rented it from Amazon. Odds are I'll pick up the blu-ray at some point. (I still need to re-watch the entire series before watching the newest film, Phantasm: Ravager, which was also released recently.)

This is a movie I've only ever seen on VHS, so it was amazing to see it all cleaned up and in high def. It's still a low budget 70's exploitation film, but it's well worth the upgrade.

The Movie
Phantasm is hard to describe without giving much away. No, that's not fair - it's just hard to describe. Let's try this - after a strange death (involving the second most ludicrous use of boobs in a horror movie), a young man named Mike, his brother Jody and their friend Reggie become embroiled in a game of cat and mouse with the local mortician, a strange individual dubbed "The Tall Man."

"He's right behind me, isn't he?"

There, that seem straightforward enough, right? Makes absolutely no mention of super strength, strange dwarfs, guitar jams, psychics, grave robbing, animated fingers that turn into insects, other planets or abandoned mine shafts. All of those things and more will make an appearance over the course of the film, which is weird and disconnected and dreamlike from the get-go.

Mike is suffering from fears of abandonment after the death of his parents. After spying on his brother during the funeral - where he witnesses the Tall Man lift a coffin all by himself -  he visits a psychic because he's afraid his brother is going to take off on him. The psychic responds by going all 'Bene Gesserit' on him. She makes him put his hand in a black box, his hand starts to hurt, he tries to pull it out all while the psychic's daughter says in flat monotone "don't fear, Michael, don't fear." To his credit, at no time does Mike say "this damn box is eating my hand and if you say 'don't fear' one more time I'm hitting you with it!" The point - other than to get cred with Dune fans - is that fear is Mike's problem, and that only in overcoming his fear can he triumph.

"They tried and failed?"
"No. They tried and died."
"You're just going to rip the entire scene from Dune, aren't you?"

Mike investigates the funeral home and is discovered and chased by the Tall Man, a flying silver sphere that uses blades to lodge into your face before drilling into your skull, and dwarfs that look so much like jawas that I expected them to yell 'utini!' every time they appeared. He manages to escape with a severed finger - the result of the Tall Man getting his hand caught in a door (and with a little help from Mike's knife). Mike uses the finger - still sitting in a goopy bed of the yellow fluid that passes for the Tall Man's blood, to convince Jody that something weird is definitely going on.

Yeah, that's not disturbing at all.

Oh, also, the finger turns into a crazy, sharp-toothed insect that is then ground up in a garbage disposal. So there's that.

So weird and surreal - or cheap and half-assed, depending on your point of view. I actually like how random and disconnected things are, but they could be read as the filmmakers not having a clue as to what they're doing. If you haven't bought in by the time the bug shows up, then you're probably better off not finishing the film because it just gets weirder. Which is something I actually said to my wife as we were watching it - "this just gets weirder." She didn't believe me.

To be fair, we'd seen this already.

Mike, Jody and Reggie enter the mausoleum to... actually, I'm not sure why. To confront the Tall Man? Find evidence of his crimes (the dwarfs are actually dead townsfolk - including their friend from the opening scene - that have been crushed to a smaller size)? I'm not sure, and it's probably not important. There are more dwarfs, the Tall Man, the sphere and finally a room full of black, plastic barrels that contain a bunch of the dwarfs. And two silver pillars in the middle of the floor. Mike falls partly between the pillars and finds himself halfway into another world, with the dwarfs being used as slaves under a red sun.

Not Krypton, I'm fairly sure.

At this point my wife turned to me and said, "okay, you were right, it got weirder."

The two brothers escape, but Reggie is stabbed by the Tall Man in his guise as a beautiful woman. Jody and Mike hatch a plan to trap the Tall Man in an abandoned mine and Jody heads off to set the trap, leaving Mike to wait for the all clear. Unfortunately for Mike, the Tall Man knows where he lives and attacks - causing Mike to have to escape and head to the mine on foot.

I think Reggie was killed for pretending to be Magneto in that X-Men movie.

As Mike flees the Tall Man the very ground beneath his feet seems determined to hinder him, turning to mud and sucking at his feet. He chants "don't fear, don't fear" and this somehow allows him to escape the mud and keep running toward the mine. The Tall Man follows, rocks fall, everyone dies. Wait - no, just the Tall Man dies. Jody appears at the top of the hill, his hands raised in triumph - they've finally defeated the evil...

Everything's okay now...

So that should be the ending, but isn't. What follows should feel like a cheat, but somehow doesn't. In fact, it makes what went before a bit easier to understand - and for me, touches on that element of grief, of being unable to let go of the people we've lost. And then the movie pulls the rug out from under you with one more twist.

The Bottom Line
Phantasm is a weird film, and it's just not going to be for everyone. My wife spent a fair portion of the film asking "what the hell is going on?" By the end of the film I think she'd pretty much given up on it. It's surreal and low-budget and extremely 70's, but those are all part of the charm for me.

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Tenebrae

"It was like a book... a BOOK!"

I prefer my Argento with a touch of the supernatural. My favorite of his films remain Suspiria, Phenomena and (more recently) Inferno. That's not to say I don't love his other films - Deep Red is still a masterpiece, after all - it's just that I think his vision works better when there's something of the strange in it. It's easier to let go of the wandering narrative structure or mismanaged/dropped plot elements when there's a girl summoning flies or witches in the basement.

I think part of my preference my go back to the VHS days, when Argento films in the US were always heavily edited. The supernatural stuff just fared better, given that it was already pretty messed up. I saw Phenomena as Creepers, and even with the cuts it still had Jennifer Connelly and a chimp with a straight razor. I saw Tenebrae as Unsane back then, and my general memory of the film was 'meh.' It always ranked pretty low in my mental list of "Argento films to own or watch again." I probably wouldn't have bothered picking it up if I hadn't watched Inferno last year and had a completely different experience from my first viewing. I'd also heard that the original edit was a vastly improved film, with more character moments, a more comprehensible plot, and a lot more violence.

Violence?! In an Argento film? I was just as shocked as you are!

The Medium
Synapse released Tenebrae on blu-ray this past year. I didn't bother getting the 'limited edition steelbook' edition and was happy to purchase the regular release later this year. I don't really need the soundtrack (and have a few Goblin albums with the important pieces on it already). I will be jumping on the Phenomena and Suspiria releases - because I'm also a huge fanboy for those films. The picture quality was excellent and the extras are good, if sparse. The documentary on giallos is a good starting point/overview for those who haven't read much about the genre (I include myself in that group). I've only listened to the commentary for a few minutes, but it also seems to be decent.

The Movie
Peter Neil (Anthony Franciosa), author of crime thrillers, arrives in Rome for a book tour. Shortly before he arrives a young shoplifter is brutally murdered and pages from his most recent novel, Tenebrae, are found stuffed into her mouth. The police don't really suspect Neil - his alibi is air-tight - but the killer is obsessed, going so far as to send Neil letters about the killings.

I wanted to make a joke about eating your words, but it seems forced.
I'm sorry, I'll get my coat.

Suspects and red herrings abound, as per usual for an Argento giallo. And as usual the main character is a creative type - a writer, in this case, as in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Franciosa is a likeable actor and lends Neil more warmth and character than I normally expect from an Argento lead. Daria Nicolodi's role as his 'girl Friday', Anne, is pretty thin for her - a sort of non-entity and not what I expect from Nicolodi, who's usually more interesting to watch. The supporting characters are where the most fun is to be had, particularly Detective Giermani, who can never quite figure out who the murderer is - in mystery novels, at least.

"Evin with Scooby Doo! Old Man Smithers? I never saw that coming."

Tenebrae is restrained for Argento, with few of the more outrageous excesses of style - at least early on. Not to say there isn't style, it's just more... realistic. Even the big tour-de-force scene with a roaming camera around an apartment building is just impressive, rather than being extravagant. The film is easy to follow and the characters aren't too outre' or weird. You may think you know who the killer is fairly early on, and that may initially be disappointing, but as that character is killed about half way through the film you don't want to get too comfortable.

No need to freak out, either, though.

Argento likes to play with images and symbolism, so there's a lot going on in Tenebrae below the surface, if you want to look deeper (there's a character connection with water, for instance, that informs the words I used in this sentence). He plays with light, music, reflections and doubles. On some level he's also asking a question about art and the responsibility of the creator. At its most basic level the question is - if you write/draw/film about monsters, does that make you a monster? I think Argento is aware enough to laugh at the question with this film.

And 'axe' his critics a few questions.

As always he makes the kills so stylish and interesting they become art pieces. The violence is pretty restrained, for Argento - there's still blood and blades and boobs, as expected, but it's still pretty tame compared to previous films. Until suddenly it's not. There's a sequence near the end of the film that's one of the bloodiest scenes in all of Argento's films - a wall is literally painted in arterial spray, there are dismemberments and axe blows and throat slittings and art piercings (you'll just have to see it). It's such a shock after the relatively tame murders that came before  - particularly that dismemberment and the blood spray - that I blurted out "holy shit" when it happened. I know I'd never seen that scene before, and indeed much of it had been cut from Unsane. (I understand that it was also cut severely in Italian releases after the actress - Veronica Lario - got married to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.)

You know I had to add a cap of this scene. Just be glad it isn't animated.

The drawbacks of most Argento films are also on display here - there are jumps in logic and behavior that you have to just go with. There are events that seem unlikely or implausible. The plot - though tighter than some of Argento's films - still has holes. There are a few sequences - one near the end in particular - that bear no scrutiny whatsoever. And, as with most Argento films, I find the ride more than fun enough that I let it all pass.

The Bottom Line
Watching Tenebrae this time around was a much different experience, at least in part due to the 'restored' or original cut of the film. For one thing - it actually makes sense (for an Argento film). For another, the violence is much more graphic than I remembered (and I would have remembered that arm chopping sequence, had it been in the Unsane cut). It also seems like it will be a film that rewards a closer viewing, despite the jumps and twists having been given away. I still prefer the supernatural in my Argento films - but this one's pretty good, too.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Creature Double Feature: Grizzly and Orca

I've been calling these weekends 'creature features' since I first started doing them, but they're really the 'animals attack' sub-genre, and even more specifically they're the 70's version. Ants, spiders, frogs, fish, birds and even rabbits have featured in previous posts.  At some point I'll have to spread out and start doing monsters or maybe move beyond the 70's, but there are still plenty of films to go - I haven't touched The Swarm or Phase IV or The Long Weekend yet!

This time around I thought I'd go with one-word-title ripoffs of Jaws. Grizzly fits the theme perfectly, but Orca, as it turns out, is something else. I'd already rented it, however, and my current blizzard of migraines (3 today) means I'm typing (and thinking) too slowly to fit another film in. Seems to be its own theme this year - not enough time!

The Medium
Both of these films were via Amazon - Grizzly is available via Prime and I rented Orca (another reason for not slotting in a new film - my budget). The quality of both films was just okay - but I'm not sure how either of them would have benefited from an HD picture. (Though some shots in Orca are picturesque.)

The Movies
It's an extremely busy late-season weekend at a national park and head ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George) is short-handed. He doesn't have enough people to keep track of all the campers and back-packers, but it should be fine because the park has no natural predators. All of the bears have been moved to higher country, outside of the park. Unfortunately, one didn't get the eviction notice.

How awesome is the tagline for this movie? "18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!" It promises much in the way of gory animal vs human action. Despite the tagline, however, Grizzly is not very good. A direct clone of Jaws, Grizzly features the conflicted moral authority in Kelly, the clueless bureaucrat  whose concern for appearance and the bottom line gets people killed, the too-fascinated-for-his-own-good scientist and the hardened local (chopper pilot and Vietnam vet in this instance).

Ever since I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man I've been less likely to enjoy bears as antagonists/protagonists in film.  However, the bear in this movie is hard to take seriously. The gore scenes are just amateur hour - I laughed out loud during the first attack when an arm goes flying across the clearing. Actually, I often laughed out loud at this movie, and I'm fairly sure I wasn't supposed to. The bear himself is considerably smaller than 18 feet in height when seen against something - like a watchtower - that it can be compared to. Most of the attacks consist of the actor and a stuffed bear arm. It's not Night of the Lepus ridiculous, but it's close.

The story beats of the film are familiar to anyone who's seen Jaws - including the 'drunk yahoos flood the area hoping to get the creature for themselves' sequence, the 'you're fired!' scene and the 'I'm drinking because I blame myself' scene. It's not note for note, but it's damn familiar. In the end the three main characters (there's a photographer who I THOUGHT was going to be a major character, but whose plot gets dropped halfway through the film) go off after the bear themselves - both on horseback and in a helicopter. This goes about as well as it went in Jaws - except everyone but the main character dies. We do see a bear get exploded by a rocket launcher, however. It's not as cool as it sounds.

Things that stood out:
- The bear really likes to knock body parts off of things. In addition to the arm and a kids leg, the standout is a horse decapitation. I imagine that this is how mobsters get horse heads to put in beds.
- a story about 'herds' of grizzly bears stalking and killing a tribe of Native Americans is just not on the same level as Quint's Indianapolis story.
- It's apparently warm enough in fall to strip down to your underwear and 'dip your toes' in a waterfall. When you know there's a killer bear on the loose.
- You can explode a bear with a rocket launcher and have it all be a neat and tidy area of fire, rather than an immense, bloody splatter zone.

The Bottom Line
William Girdler's first animal attack film is a bit of a clunker and it made me appreciate how much better Day of the Animals - also with Christopher George - is. What does work is some of the character interactions and some of the scenery. It would be quite fun to watch with a group of slightly inebriated friends. Not so much alone and sober in a cold basement.

I saw Orca a long time ago - I think when it was on HBO in the 80's - and I remembered exactly two things about it: Richard Harris was in it, and Bo Derek gets her leg bitten off. My memory was fuzzy enough that I expected it to be another straight forward Jaws clone. No matter its flaws, Orca is more than that, at least. It's actually much closer to a revenge thriller - only here, the Rambo character is played by the killer whale.

Nolan, played by still-the-best-Dumbledore Richard Harris, is trying to raise enough money to pay off the mortgage on his boat and head back to Ireland. At first his scheme involves trying to capture a great white shark, but when he witness an orca kill a great white he changes his target. Unfortunately for him, the whale, his crew and the whole town, he completely botches the capture. He ends up killing the female of a bonded pair -by accident - and the whale spontaneously aborts when she's first captured.

With his mate and unborn child dead, the orca becomes fixated on Nolan and starts a reign of terror designed to force Nolan back on to the sea, where the killer whale can finally get its revenge.

I know, it sounds pretty stupid - and there's definitely a huge burden of disbelief to suspend here - but the movie plays it all with deadly seriousness. I mean, we've got Charlotte Rampling pontificating about how intelligent orcas are and Richard Harris (still-the-best-Marcus-Aurelius ) giving a monologue about how he empathizes with the whale because a drunk driver killed his own wife and child. It's a bit overwrought, to be honest, and it's really more than an 'animal attack' movie can bear. It's ambitious - but it's still Bo Derek getting her leg bit off that I'm going to remember years from now, not Harris' haunted gaze as the whale leads them deep into the arctic ice fields.

I actually wish the movie had realized that the whale is the hero of the piece much earlier in the narrative. The human beings aren't evil - they're just selfish and short-sighted. After several attacks on the town - including an explosive set piece with a fuel line and the tanks above town - the villagers themselves are the ones that drive Nolan and his crew back onto the water. To be fair, another day or two and the whale would probably have figured out how to lurk in back alleys, knifing people at random.

The Bottom Line
Orca is too heavy to be much fun and too goofy a premise to be taken seriously. There's some interesting stuff there - and at least it tries to be a deeper creature feature than normal - but it's just not as good a film as it wants to be. And poor Bo Derek.

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Nosferatu (1979)

My love for Dracula waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon and this tidal response extends to the media surrounding the character. Some days I want nothing more than to dig out Leslie Klinger's New Annotated Dracula and get lost in the combination of the novel and the in-setting footnotes. Other days the conceit wears on me and the novel itself feels overlong and tiresome. The Universal Dracula is the same way - it's comforting and fun, or staid and boring, all depending on how I'm feeling at the time. Other monster characters don't seem to engender the same issues - I can enjoy Frankenstein at almost any time, for instance, whether it's a James Whale movie or Young Frankenstein - the concept and the characters don't run hot and cold for me.

Yeah, this is a long-winded way of saying I didn't enjoy Nosferatu as much as I expected to. The first time I watched Werner Herzog's Nosferatu I loved it - the visuals, the mood, Kinski's performance, it was all working for me. I liked the exaggerated, stylized acting and the nods (and occasional outright homage) to the original Nosferatu. In short, I was a fan, and I approached watching it again with some anticipation.

Fortunately I didn't have to wait as long as these folks.

Unfortunately, I was just not in the right place at all. I had planned to rewatch Murnau's original to get ready, but I ended up fast-forwarding through it to simply catch the highlights. I could tell when the Herzog's film started, with its long, slow shots of mummified corpses, that I wasn't going to be able to settle down and enjoy it this time around. I briefly thought about watching something else, but I hadn't left myself enough time. So, perhaps keep it in mind if you read the review.  

The Medium
Streaming on Amazon. Widescreen and in good quality. (Their version of the original Murnau film is not in such good shape, unfortunately.)

The Movie
The plot should be familiar enough - Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula. Count buys property in the same city Harker lives in (Dresden, I think) and brings death and rats with him when he comes. The plot is not really the thing in this movie, however. Herzog focuses on visuals and mood, to the extent that the story is really on notable for the changes it makes to the inspiring text. Particularly to the character of Lucy, who is much more of a pro-active force in this version (and supplants the character of Mina from the text), as well as the character of Van Helsing - who, in this version, is a doddering pedant whose slavish devotion to science means Lucy is on her own in dealing with Dracula.

Don't freak out! You're way more capable than any of the men in this film.

And then, of course, there's Dracula himself - played with feral intensity by Klaus Kinski. His Count is both more animalistic and somehow more sympathetic and almost tragic - though it teeters on the edge of being pathetic instead. Certainly his hollow-eyed gaze seems constantly on the edge of tears, except when there is blood to be had. This is probably my favorite role for Kinski, and he manages to pull off being a monster with at least the memory of humanity.

"I really want to see Stranger Things, but we don't get Netflix up here."

The imagery is fantastic, with Harker's trip to Castle Dracula being a standout - looming mountains, cascading streams hemmed in by moss-slicked cliffs and sunsets that come on too quickly and yet also seem to last forever. Early on a gypsy man says that the Castle isn't even real, that it's a ruin and those who go through the gates enter a dreamworld, and this is reinforced by contrasting the fairly intact interiors of the castle with a completely ruined exterior shot. The rats infest every later scene in the film, forming a living, writhing background for the decay of the city. I do still love the nods to Murnau's film, especially the shadow of the count moving in strange ways along the walls. There's also a scene in which Dracula moves through the deserted streets at night, almost skipping. It's really the only time he seems almost happy. It's disturbing.

It's a picnic! Just ignore the coffins and the rats. Oh, and the plague.

Unfortunately for me, the stilted and stylized acting and direction grated this time around. Isabelle Adjani as Lucy is particularly arch. I think she's probably the truest to the original in action and intent, but it's too much - at least in this viewing. Even the music cues seemed ill-timed or chosen poorly. I'd much prefer an actual score that went with the action. The interiors are shot dimly and with a flat lighting that contrasts sharply with the rich exterior shooting and I found myself longing for some depth in those scenes. Scenes in general seem to drag on too long, with too little happening in them to maintain interest. These are things that didn't bother me the first time I watched the film, but seemed to wear on me during this viewing.

Watch the hands, buster! And if you could make this scene like 10 minutes shorter...

The Bottom Line
I hate to undercut myself, but I urge you to attempt to see Nosferatu. It's an art-film horror movie, with a stylized presentation meant to mimic and expand on the German expressionist film it's based on, and at that it succeeds admirably. You may need to brace yourself for a certain lack of pacing and a focus on image over story, but if you're in the right mood it can be magic. I wish I'd been there this time around.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Pulse (Kairo)

"Help me"

There was a time there where every Japanese horror movie seemed to get an American remake. Ringu, Ju-On, Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara - all made into relatively big-budget movies with big name American stars. I've seen a bunch of them, but not all (I haven't seen Chakushin Ari, for instance). Pulse was one that slipped through the cracks.

I generally prefer to watch the remakes first, if I can. I find that I almost always prefer the original, and if it's the last version I see I don't end up disappointed. This isn't always the case - The Ring is pretty damn good all on its own, for instance, but it's happened often enough that if I watch the original of a film first I'll end up avoiding the remake. (Which is why I still haven't seen Let Me In, though I've heard it's a fairly decent remake of Let the Right One In.) I ended up deciding on the original this time around specifically because I was in the mood for some J-horror and this was on the recommended list. So I may never get around to the remake as a result.

It's totally not because I'll have become a stain on the wall. Totally not.

On Shudder via Amazon streaming. Decent quality.

Pulse has two separate threads of story that eventually entangle. The first thread follows a group of workers at a rooftop plant shop while the second focuses on two college students.

FYI, THIS is what passes for a sunny day in the movie.

The primary character in the first thread is Michi, with her friends Junko and Yabe. They're expecting a piece of software from another employee, Taguchi, who they haven't heard from in a few days. Michi goes to visit him and while she looks through his stacks of disks he casually goes around the corner and hangs himself. Later, looking at the disk he made for them, the friends find an image of Taguchi standing next to his stack of monitors, one of which contains the same image, causing an infinite series of the same image. In another monitor they can see what looks like a ghostly face.

How can they see anything at this resolution? It's like, 1024 by 768, am I right?

There's a sense of dread that suffuses the action almost from the opening scene. When Taguchi trails off in mid-conversation and shuffles around the corner I said aloud, "well, that's not good." I could have said it almost constantly, however. There's just a constant feeling like things are going horribly wrong just out of your range of vision. The color palette is also very washed out and greenish in tone, leaving even the brief moments of normality feeling off somehow.

The second thread focuses on Ryosuke, an economics student. He signs up for internet access using one of those disks that used to come in, like, every magazine ever. (AOL, Yahoo etc.) Whatever service he used, he should totally uninstall, however, because it immediately connects him to some weird shit. People alone in dark rooms, mostly. Ryosuke turns the computer off, but later that night while he's asleep it turns on again, showing a man in a chair with a plastic bag over his head - before the man can pull the bag off Ryosuke flips out, turning off the computer and unplugging pretty much all the cables. The next day he goes to the computer lab for help, being a novice in all things internet. Another student, or post-grad, Harue, tries to talk him through capturing the address of the site.

"You're not a computer person, are you?"
"What gave it away? Was it the shirt?"
"... yes, it was the shirt."

That whole sequence with Ryosuke starting up his computer and using the disk was a MAJOR 'whoa, I'm old' moment. The sound of the dialup modem, the whole 'computer service on a disk' and the Windows 95 interface on every computer - I felt like I was having flashbacks. It really made me appreciate my cable internet, if nothing else!

In both story threads things start to get weird. Yabe gets a call from the dead Taguchi, whose voice pleads 'help me.' He goes to Taguchi's apartment where he sees a black stain on the wall where Taguchi committed suicide - he also finds a crumpled piece of paper with the words 'the forbidden room' on it. This appears to refer to a room in the basement of the building with a door that is sealed with red tape. When Yabe goes into the room he is confronted and cornered by what appears to be a ghost. This seems to unnerve him completely, and soon he too has vanished into a stain in the wall.

So does Junko. "Come on, be a stain, everyone's doing it!"

Ryosuke manages to take a screencap of the video with the man in the plastic bag. On the wall behind him the words 'help me' are scribbled many times. A character suggests that maybe the place where we go when we die, the place the ghosts come from, only has a finite amount of space. That hell is full, in other words, and now the dead walk the earth.

Nothing quite explains why or how the ghosts are killing people - if the afterlife is full, why bring more people over? Wouldn't ghosts want to help make people immortal - as Harue says? I mean, where are the newly dead going to go?

Don't say library, don't say library... ah, dammit.

Whatever the reason, more and more people disappear as the ghosts multiply. There's an underlying thread about loneliness and isolation in modern life that seems to exacerbate a natural nihilism. The ghosts, it seems to say, indicate that whatever existential angst we feel in life is reflected in the afterlife. "It's lonely being dead." The problem for most of the characters is, it's lonely being alive as well. Confronting the ghosts seems to bring that desire to just stop existing to the front and people either jump from buildings, or, in some cases, simply turn into ash and blow away.

It IS an easier cleanup, though. Too soon?

Our two main characters, Michi and Ryosuke, eventually meet up and try to escape from an increasingly empty and apocalyptic looking city. The question is, is there anywhere to go - and will there be anyone left to greet them if there is?

Let's... go someplace else.

The Bottom Line
I like Pulse quite a bit, although the plot doesn't always (or often) really make sense to me. The ghosts seem to be using the medium of the internet to interact with people, but then they're also in rooms that get sealed with red tape. Some people look at ghosts and are fine, but others just lose the will to live. Really, it's a moody meditation on loneliness and isolation and the worry that we're all just trapped inside our own skulls. Sitting alone in the darkness of my basement, watching this movie over the internet, it felt a little more potent than it might have otherwise.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Shrine

I've passed The Shrine by a few times, I don't think I ever even put it in my queue. I'm not sure why, really. The cover image is no better or worse than any other I've seen. Yes, it's got a poor rating on Netflix - around 2 1/2 stars if I remember correctly - but that's never really stopped me from watching horror films before. If I have to pin down a reason, it's probably the title. There's just nothing about it that jumps out at me and says horror. It just seems more passive or even innocuous than, say, The Church. Or even (and more appropriately) The Statue. I just associate it more with quiet contemplation or Buddhist temples or Shinto.  It's a gap in my mental net and the movie just passed right through it.

The Medium
Streaming on Netflix.

The Movie
The Shrine starts off with a bang - that of a sledghammer slamming down on a metal mask - as an apparent cult really does a number on a young guy, strapping him to a table before the hammer comes down, the metal mask over his face.

That mask really does go with every outfit, though.

After that, we're introduced to Carmen (Cindy Sampson), the kind of journalist that ignores her bosses orders to stop investigating a story - and ignores her boyfriend, Marcus (Aaron Ashmore), as well. To be fair, it does seem like her story is worth pursuing - a number of tourists have gone missing in Poland over the years, and she has a line on the family of a recent disappearance - this is Eric, the young man from the opening scene. As her boyfriend is a photographer, she manages to convince him to come to Poland with her and her assistant, Sara (Meghan Heffern) to shoot pictures for her eventual story. Assuming she's not summarily fired for doing the trip behind her editor's back.

During a good chunk of the start of this movie - hell, maybe the whole first half - I was not really impressed. It's got some mood, one good jump scare and a couple of good actors - I always like Aaron Ashmore - but it feels thin and almost cheap, like a SyFy picture. The lead, Sampson, is just okay in her role and she plays Carmen with an almost flat affect that makes everyone else around her seem to be over-emoting. It feels like she (and to a lesser extent, Heffern) is playing a character in a monster movie and the others - Ashmore in particular - play their characters like they're in a drama. Carmen is constantly going places, saying things and doing things that only make sense in a monster movie. Ashmore's character is like a normal person, constantly saying things like "We should leave." and "That's not a good idea."

Get used to that expression, you'll see it a lot.

He's right of course, it's not a good idea. None of it.

Directed to the small town of Alvania (which sounds like a location in a GI Joe cartoon) by Eric's journal they find the place to be a bit time-lost, with dirt roads, open fields and a lot of distrustful town folk. Near a small church with a strange symbol they see a weird, stationary cloud hovering over the forest. It's mentioned in Eric's journal, so they head that way, but are stopped by a group of villagers with pitchforks. Well, I think one of them had a pitchfork. Might have been a rake. You get the idea. The leader, a guy named Henryk (seen earlier butchering a hog) mistakes them for 'English' and demands they leave.

The guys in the back did NOT get the Ren Fair dress code note.

Marcus is only too happy to oblige, but Carmen has other ideas. She's not leaving without finding out what happened to Eric. They park the car and head overland through the woods before coming across a wall of dense fog that seems to be just sitting there, not moving, not dissipating. While Marcus and Carmen argue about what to do, Sara enters the fog and quickly disappears from sight. After some time goes by, Carmen enters the fog after her.

And Marcus stays back, as the only sane one.

This is the point at which things start to turn around in the film for me. Up until this point I've only been vaguely interested and neither the characters nor their interpersonal drama have done anything to deepen that interest. The town and it's folk are weird, yeah, but it could be any of a hundred 'villages with a secret' in a hundred different horror movies.

Ah, but you see, the secret they're hiding is, of course, in the fog. And once Carmen has found it, it's really too late for them all to leave.

I said no pictures!

The events of the film after that completely won me over. It went from a film I didn't really like much to a film I was happy to be watching. It kept me guessing longer than it probably should have, but I'd been lulled into thinking it was one kind of film before it switched gears and went a bit crazy on me. Nothing in the first half of the film really prepares you for how violent and weird things get - so this is me, preparing you. It gets weird and violent.

And also voilent and weird.

There is an extended sequence of what I consider torture, about two thirds of the way through the film. A character is subjected to the same sort of thing that the initial scene showed, but it's drawn out and extremely tough to watch. I could have done with this being a lot shorter - you get the idea pretty quick - but on the other hand it serves to set your mind in a certain direction, so I get why they did it - I just don't like it much.

The Bottom Line
The Shrine is a movie that overcomes a pretty stale premise and a very slow first half to become something really worth watching. It's not fine cinema and you may end up feeling like you should have seen certain things coming, but it still leaves you feeling like you watched a decent horror movie. And given how I felt when it started, that's a pretty big accomplishment.

Monster War: Apocrypha - free again to celebrate a bad review!

Hey! I got a review on my short-short story, Apocrypha on Amazon! Unfortunately, they didn't like it much. "No need for bad language..." I hope they got it on one of the free promotions and - dear God - I hope they don't ever read The Monster War! Talk about bad language... Anyway, to celebrate the story's first review, it's free again! If you don't mind the 's' word you might like it. And if you don't, well - at least it's short - and free!

Download it from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01EX6CUYA

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: V/H/S 2

I didn't like the first V/H/S very much. There were moments, and I liked the last segment okay, but the shoddy story/production/characters in most of them didn't inspire interest. The overwhelming misogyny stinking the joint up was also the most horrifying thing about it. (It's a horror movie and there's almost always a level of that, it was just... worse than usual.)

Needless to say, I wasn't keen on watching a follow-up in the series, despite folks telling me it was much better than the first. (There's yet another, V/H/S: Viral, that I've been warned away from several times.) However, I realized I've watched neither a found-footage nor an anthology movie this year, and this recommendation ticks both those boxes.

So, was V/H/S 2 better than the first? Let's find out.

The Medium
Streaming on Netflix.

The Movie
Breaking it down by the individual segments. There are fewer of them (by one) than in the first film and you might think this would help by giving each segment a little more time to play with. Unfortunately, this installment is about 24 minutes shorter, so not so much. On the other hand, nothing drags on too long, either.

"Tape 48/Framing sequence"
A private detective, Larry, and his assistant Ayesha are hired by a mother to look into the disappearance of her son, Kyle. They break into the young man's house and find an array of video monitors, a laptop and a stack of VHS tapes next to a player. The laptop is still recording video and there are files showing Kyle talking about collecting the tapes. Larry asks Ayesha to look at some of the tapes while he searches the rest of the house. The tapes Ayesha watches are the individual segments of the anthology.

"Why don't you stay here in the dark and watch these creepy tapes while I leave?"
"How about I just quit?"

I like this quite a bit more than the framing sequence in the first VHS. For one, the characters aren't complete assholes and for another there are hints of a bigger story. The clips from Kyle indicate there's a large online group dedicated to finding these weird videos and that there's something that happens if you watch them in the correct sequence.

"Should NOT have started off with Oasis of the Zombies."

 Ayesha starts exhibiting weird symptoms as the sequence progresses - trance-like state, nosebleeds and migraines. Because the camera on the laptop is still on (as well as other cameras) we can see someone or something creeping around in the background as she watches. Relatively decent, if standard, found-footage stuff.

I liked the buildup better than the denouement, as it didn't quite pull together for me. Going from creepypasta videos that screw with your head to scuttle zombies is a bit of a jump. No thumbs up from me - sorry Kyle.

"Phase 1 | Clinical Trials"
Herman gets an experimental optical implant after losing his eye in a car accident. Doctor warns of glitches as it's still experimental. Seeing dead people is a hell of a glitch, doc. Clarissa, a girl he sees at the doctor's office, shows up to warn him - she's had an ear implant that lets her hear the dead -  the more you pay attention to them the more they can interact with you. Things go predictably pear shaped and Herman forcibly removes the implant. Unfortunately, while he can no longer see the ghosts, they can still see him perfectly...

Nothing about this screams 'let's have sex.'

Ah... I wanted to like this one. And I like the concept okay, even if it's been done before and better. However none of the character reactions seem at all believable - you see someone in your house and you don't call the cops? Creepy underwear uncle is hovering around, but you still have sex? There's also almost no buildup of suspense, so the rush of ghost attacks seems to come out of nowhere and loses most of its possible pop as a result.

"A Ride in the Park"
Zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a zombie! Biker goes for a ride with a GoPro on his helmet, gets bitten, wakes up hungry and goes on zombie rampage. Not a bad concept, but it doesn't have a lot of places to go, plot and character wise. Luckily it's a short vignette and we even get a little zombie pathos as the zombie seems to still maintain a bit of his former personality. Short as it is, it's still a little too long and definitely not something to watch if you don't like to see kids in danger (actually, that's a good warning for the next two segments as well). It's the only segment with something like a sense of humor.

"On your face. You've just got a little something... you know what, never mind."

"Safe Haven"
My favorite of the bunch. A documentary film crew manages to get permission to film inside the compound of a doomsday cult. Unfortunately for them, turns out TODAY is doomsday. I think this is the longest piece and it uses the time to actually build some characters and situations. There's a love triangle in the crew that's complicated by a pregnancy. The leader of the cult is both weird and at times disarmingly normal.  the cult itself is nicely ominous and creepy - with Blair Witch type iconography and classrooms full of glassy-eyed children.

"I'm not saying it's the apocalypse. But it's the apocalypse."

I lost track of who had what camera and why, but it didn't seem to matter. The buildup to the action was great and when things went wrong they went oh so very, gorily wrong. There are shootings, suicides, an exploding guy and at one point a creature tears itself up and out of a woman's stomach. That was awesome and nausea inducing. Good acting, pacing, special effects and sound set this a bit above the rest. The final shot is, unfortunately, a little goofy, which deflates the mood considerably. Goat-headed demons should definitely be out of focus before talking.

"Slumber Party Alien Abduction"
Parents go away for the weekend, kids have a party - older kids drink and screw around, younger kids make videos and prank the older kids. Then aliens show up and try and abduct everyone. Much of the action is shot from POV of a small dog with a camera attached to its back.

Wet Dog Cam!

You know, it is what it is. An extended alien attack, found-footage style. I liked the buildup - the kids and their situation - but the actual abduction sequences were loud, bright, frenetic and near incomprehensible, visually. Sometimes the aliens are stealthy and fast, sometimes they're Romero zombie slow. And they killed the dog. Never kill the dog.

Bottom Line
Much better than the first V/H/S! This sequel has much less in the way of sexual predation and douchebaggery actually trys out some interesting ideas. They don't all work, but each segment has at least a few things to recommend it and "Safe Haven" is really good.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Tombs of the Blind Dead, Ghost Galleon and Night of the Seagulls

Continuing the shorter, catch up reviews.
This series is one of those classics of European horror that I never got around to seeing (haven't seen any of Paul Naschy's werewolf films, either). Stills of the killer monks from the series always looked awesome, and I was in the mood for something weird and old and Spanish (this is actually a Spanish/Portuguese co-production). Between Amazon and Shudder 3 of the 4 films are available and I've always heard they're not really connected, story wise, so I went for it.

Tombs of the Blind Dead
After an opening sequence involving a sect of Templar-type knights torturing a woman before drinking her blood, we're brought to modern day. A woman runs into an old high school chum who she once had a sexual encounter with when they were schoolgirls. Annoyed at her boyfriend's infatuation with her friend, she runs off the train - as you do - and ends up lost near some old ruins. So of course she spends the night in the creepy old ruins - again, as you do - and ends up chased and run down by the same knights that somehow rise from the grave. Her boyfriend and friend try and find out what happened to her, spend the night in the ruins and things repeat.

There are some cool moments in the film. The knights are a great design, desiccated and eerie - moving deliberately to surround their prey before stabbing with their swords, or riding people down on their ghostly horses. The setting of the village/fortress is very atmospheric - particularly at night. There's also a damn effective sequence involving a woman stuck in a mannequin factory. Outside of these elements, things are not so good, with hateful characters, casual rape, a threadbare plot and  a sagging middle act that drags on way too long.

Tickets please!

The end almost redeems the whole movie, however, with the monks chasing the only survivor onto a train and killing their way through the passengers. The train arrives at the station and there's the general feeling that the knights will disembark and then humanity is in some real trouble. The knights are very much like vampires that look like mummies, drinking blood and causing their victims to rise and attack the living. They can also move around in the daylight in this film, unlike later entries. Not good!

This Doctor Who episode got really weird...

The Ghost Galleon
A fashion model attempts to find out what happened to her missing roommate and discovers a secret publicity stunt involving a major corporation and a boat purposefully lost at sea. Unfortunately for everyone, the girls have stumbled onto a ghost ship, populated by the Blind Dead! Of course a rescue effort is mounted and the ghost ship is found - but once you board, you're stuck and the knights begin to pick of the rescue crew one by one.

Eventually someone figures out that it's the knights themselves and their dark magic that holds both the ship and the remaining survivors hostage in some kind of twilight dimension. They quickly decide to toss the coffins containing the knights overboard during the day. (The knights cannot come out during the daylight hours - one would think they might choose an evil dimension with no day, but maybe it's just tradition.)  Hooray, everyone (well the two survivors) are saved! Except no one remembered that the dead don't need to breathe.

Or change their clothes, apparently.

This is actually my favorite of the three Blind Dead films I watched, but it's still full of reprehensible characters, casual rape and misogyny and people doing stupid things for no reason. The ship is an atmospheric set (though the model work isn't very good) and the monks have their usual creepy, menacing, slow assault on their prey. One particular sequence - chasing one of the initial girls around the upper decks - does drag on long enough to start being comedy, but they're generally effective.

"We're just trying to get to the buffet."

And again, the ending is the best part, with the knights rising out of the sea, deathless and implacable and probably a little pissed. There's no indication that their prey will also rise from the dead this time around, so no world-ending danger, but I still wouldn't want to get in their way.

Night of the Seagulls

I think this entry has the most interesting story possibilities and the most ridiculous title. A doctor is assigned to a small, seaside town only to discover the population is haunted by knights that demand a sacrifice of seven girls every seven years. The doctor tries to intervene - hijinks ensue. Unfortunately, it's also the most boring. I actually started to fall asleep at one point, though to be fair this was the last of the three films I watched and maybe I was just tired.

Once again the setting and the knights are the best parts - the seaside village appears to have been built right into the sides of a set of cliffs and half the tension of the film was wondering if the actors were going to fall to their deaths. The knights are effective as ever, and have added a Lovecraftian Dagon-like idol to their general depravations. This time around they only feed on their victims after ripping out the heart (from the bared chest, natch) and feeding it to the idol. The knights make the basic mistake of leaving the last couple of victims alive in their lair, and the destruction of the idol seems to finally put an end to the threat of the Blind Dead.

"It's a great gift, guys, really, but where am I supposed to keep her?"

The Bottom Line
I both liked and hated these movies, which may seem a weird thing to say. There are sequences and images that will stay with me - and will probably drive me to watch The Return of the Evil Dead, the only one of the films I haven't seen. Eventually. There's also a seemingly endless fount of tedium, hateful characters and repetitive sounds/images. Any time the knights aren't on the screen things seem to grind to a halt (except for that scene in the mannequin factory) and I found myself hoping they'd show up soon and kill these people so I didn't have to listen to them anymore.