It All Happens In The Dark

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Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Final Frontier?

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

This one really didn’t make much of an impression on me. It should have been something great. It was scripted by the uber talented Joss Whedon and the man in charge, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was the same guy who brought us Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (well, he had a co-director on those two). I think I like Resurrection just a little better than Aliens. It is sorta kinda ingenuous how they bring “Ripley” back – through cloning, natch. Cause she died at the end of the last film, remember?

I hate to admit it but the script is the weakest link. Which is surprising considering Whedon gave good space in Firefly and proved he could do gooey monsters with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I’m not letting Jeunet off the hook, either. The movie is not super visually appealing or full of interesting directorial touches and techniques.

Sigourney Weaver sure seems to be enjoying herself, though, and she is – big shocker – great as a “Ripley” with some alien in her. I guess she did technically have some alien in her in the last film, too… but that was different. Now, she’s part alien. Those stupid scientists never learn and still think they can use these creatures as weapons. I love that Sigourney has been in all of these films. She not only adds a very significant connecting thread, but she brings brains and a certain amount of believability to the proceedings. She makes even the weakest entries in the series watchable.

We get a Motley crew that this time includes space pixie Winona Ryder and future Hellboy Ron Perlman. The bond that Winona’s character Call and Ripley develop is interesting but is never given the time to develop or produce dividends.

Ripley gets kinky with an alien, a half human/half alien creature pops out, smashes the face off the alien Queen that has just birthed it and then turn to Ripley for mothering. That part was pretty nifty, except for Brad Dourif hanging in the rafters, lousing it up. At the end when the poor creatures gets sucked apart and into space it is actually kind of sad. He was sort of cute, wasn’t he? This film does offer us our most sympathetic look at the creatures, which probably isn’t all that swell of an achievement since they’re supposed to be scaring us.

None of it really makes much sense or tries to – it all feels more like a bad black comedy (Hello, Dan Heyda) than a serious stab at horror or sci-fi. It is all just a little too insignificant and tossed off – it would have been better if it had taken itself a bit more seriously. 

How do you go from this to Amélie? Go figure. C

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Signs of Intelligent Life

Alien 3 (1992)

I don’t remember liking this one a lot the first time I saw it, so I was curiously intrigued to find the film as compelling as I did this go-round. It doesn’t come anywhere near rivaling the original, but (WARNING! WARNING! Massively controversial statement imminent!) flies high above the James Cameron sequel that preceded it. We open with some obvious throwbacks to the 1979 film – the very first frame looks almost identical to the Colour Out of Space backdrop of stars that opened Alien and the soundtrack similarly recalls the score before taking on a surprising operatic kick. The opening credits are pretty spectacular and they not only set up everything for us quickly and effectively but they are done with style and a sure hand. Which shouldn’t be that unforeseen considering this was directed by David Fincher – his very first film, as a matter of fact.

Though the creature has never looked as good as it did in the first film, here it comes close, aside from a few very obvious hockey CGI shots. This one goes with the not showing too much for too long angle – and it works! It still works!

The survivors of Aliens are sent crash landing onto a planet which houses a maximum security all male correctional facility after an electrical fire breaks out aboard their ship, caused, of course, by the hijinks of one of the freshly hatched facehuggers. Everyone dies but Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, back for more) who is rescued and taken inside the facility. A curious dog gets himself impregnated with one of the beasties all The Thing like when he goes nosin’ around the ship and thus the alien, too, makes his way to the penitentiary population.

Upon finding out Ripley is among them, the men of the facility are not pleased. They don’t like the idea of a woman being around, most of them having not seen one for God knows how long, and having taken a vow of celibacy after finding religion in prison. They’re all like it breaks up our harmony and spiritual unity etc. etc. As if Ripley decided she’d take a nice little detour through space and have herself a grand old vacation on their planet just for the fun of it.

The segments with Ripley investigating what caused her ship to malfunction and trying to ascertain if there is another alien threat afoot are some of the best scenes of the film. She gets Charles Dance’s prison doctor to show her Newt’s body, and attempts to examine the corpse, probing and poking to see if she can find or feel signs of infection. She convinces the doctor than an autopsy must be performed and one is, in some exceptionally well written, acted, shot and edited scenes. The later juxtaposition of the alien bursting out of the dog with the cremation services of Hicks and Newt are also a highlight. Ripley gets a nosebleed as the alien first springs forth, while Charles S. Dutton sermonises about “new life.” I liked Ripley’s battle scars, too – her bruised and bloodied eye was a very simple and striking touch – and Sigourney Weaver still manages to look quite fetching, even with her head shaved.

Is this an allegory for AIDS? That might be overreaching or reading too much into it, but I found that question on my mind more than once while watching this.

Alien 3 is a super gritty, welcome return to the feel and mindset of the original and for me, it works. When Ripley goes looking for the alien on her own and says, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else” it rings true and cuts deep.

The film does loose its steam right around the point that Charles Dance checks out and the characters always seem to use the same tactics in these movies to try and outwit the creature – seal everything off, flush it out – but it all ends on a high note with creepy Government arrivals, a familiar face and an especially bittersweet swan song. B-

Expedition 2

Aliens (1986)

Arriving seven years after Alien, this sequel had a new director and writer, more creatures, more effects and Sigourney Weaver returning as Ripley. The directing and script duties were taken on by James Cameron, who two years previously had a hit with the sci-fi actioner, The Terminator, and this sequel has more in common with that film than the 1979 film that inspired it. This is an action movie, make no mistake, with minimal horror. It has no interest in the unbearable dread and sense of sheer hopelessness that permeated Alien.

The plot concerns Ripley who is found in space fifty-seven years after the events of the first film, still floating around, still in hyper sleep. She is rescued and returned to Earth where she is brought before The Company – the super insensitive agency who in the first film deemed the Nostromo crew “expendable” and wanted nothing more than to get their hands on the chest bursting creature for their Bio-Weapons division. Ripley and her story are discredited and she is stripped of her flight license. She tries to readjust to her new life and gets a job working at a loading dock, but her nights are still filled with terror as she is plagued by continual bad dreams.

LV-426, the mysterious planet (Space Jockey, goopy eggs) which the distress beacon brought the crew of the Nostromo to in Alien has been colonized and when contact with the colony is lost, a group of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is offered reinstatement of her flight license if she will accompany the crew to the planet – not knowing what has happened there, if the Marines do come up against the hostile lifeforms Ripley spoke of, she could be of use to them. She initially rejects the proposition, but (foolishly!) changes her mind and heads back into space.

This film is heavy on special effects set pieces and it is amazing that the first film feels not only more futuristic than this sequel, but Alien is so much more seamless and has held up much better than this big budget follow-up. There are many, many more creatures now and even an alien Queen – but none of it looks as good as what we saw the first time.

I really don’t care much for this film. I find it pretty boring. I don’t understand anyone who says this is better than the original. The characters are all extremely underdeveloped and uninteresting and come nowhere near comparing to the nuanced and quirky crew that was aboard the Nostromo. Ripley is the only one with any real emotional depth and this is due more to Sigourney Weaver’s acting and the familiarity of the Ripley character than anything the script serves up.

The original was so bleak, so fiercely intelligent and original, so absorbing and astounding – this one is a dud. Everything that was otherworldly in Alien has been jettisoned in favor of pyrotechnics. Each time I watch Aliens I like it less and less, never more so than during this viewing, which occured directly following a re-screening of the original. Aliens just feels so empty. Even if this wasn’t a sequel to one of my favorite films, I still would not enjoy it. It is lame, lackluster and lazy. C

Close Encounters

Alien (1979)

Friends, I have just completed re-watching all four Alien films, so get ready for some reviewage rolling in. I have not seen and will not be including the Alien vs. Predator movies – if they don’t have Sigourney Weaver they ain’t Alien to me.

We begin, sensibly enough, with the original. So much has been written about this one, so much praise has been heaped upon it – and all rightfully so. This is a true classic that still has the power to terrify and thrill. I can’t believe how flawless this film is. Every time I watch it, I am amazed once more, awed by the ingenuity, by how well it works, how well it holds up, how well it is made. I love everything about it. For those who say this isn’t horror I say pfffft. This is as much Lovecraftian and haunted house-y as it is sci-fi. This IS horror – and it is serious horror done with sophistication and elegance. Whatever happened to that? A

Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Black Christmas (1974)

Halloween gets all the credit. It may have set open the floodgates for the 80s slasher frenzy but Black Christmas was there first, folks. It came a full five years before John Carpenter’s classic. Directed by Bob Clark, who provided us with that other seasonal staple, A Christmas Story, this Canadian shocker serves us up slow burn suspense that builds to an almost unbearable final crescendo and leaves us with a brilliant open ending. It features Margot Kidder as a foul mouthed alcoholic sorority sister, Olivia Hussey as our dewdrop heroine, Keir Dullea as her super intense boyfriend and John Saxon as the cop on the other end. Mrs. Mac, played by Marian Waldman is a glorious creation and the film would not be the same without her presence. Don’t judge this one based on the lousy remake. The calls the killer places to the girls are in my opinion the best obscene rants ever put to film. (When A Stranger Calls released the same year as Halloween is also heavily indebted to Black Christmas.) The film greatly benefits from the identity of the killer never being revealed and his motives never being explained. Truly a gift that keeps on giving and absolutely essential Christmas time viewing. A-

Through a Glass Darkly.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan comes to us from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker often hailed as a “visionary.” I’ve only seen two of his films – the first two – his black and white debut Pi and the follow up, Requiem for a Dream – which is one of my favorites and a truly harrowing and nightmarish plunge into a world of drug addiction. His other features are the Hugh Jackman opus The Fountain and the recent Mickey Rourke resurrection vehicle, The WrestlerBlack Swan is a film about ballet – a film specifically about a ballerina who is losing herself in a role and in the process seems to also be losing her mind. An unusual choice for the director, I thought, but he invests himself one hundred percent in the project. So do the actors – especially Natalie Portman who gives a go for broke performance that not surprisingly has generated Oscar rumblings.

Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York City ballet company – she is supremely dedicated, she is talented and she has just landed the starring role in the company’s production of Swan Lake. A dual role – the White Swan and the Black Swan. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) knows that Nina is the perfect choice for the White Swan – all virginal innocence. But her Black Swan is more problematic – the sensuality and abandon that is required in order to seduce the audience is something he is uncertain she can deliver. Then a potential rival presents herself in the form of the untamed Lily (Mila Kunis) a dancer who has just arrived at the company from San Francisco. She embodies everything that Thomas says the Black Swan is.

We see that Nina is clearly not well off. She purges, she has a history of punishing her body – not only the injuries that come par for the course from all her strenuous training, but also self inflicted wounds. At a party she imagines peeling a long piece of skin from her finger, and her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) takes it upon herself to keep Nina’s nails cut very short to prevent her daughter from scratching herself – a habit that once was so bad Erica had to buy expensive concealer to help hide the marks. So, yeah, Nina is wound pretty tight and the closer she comes to opening night the more her sanity frays. A rash appears on her shoulder. Her mother voices concerns about the stress of the role being too much on her. Lily seems to be trying to worm her way into Nina’s life and sabotage her performance. Nina begins to see girls that look exactly like her. The company’s previous prize dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder) pushed unhappily into retirement, lands herself in the hospital after walking into the street and being hit by a car. Beth was involved with Thomas, who has now set his sights on Nina.

This is a visual feast of a film. Aronofsky uses every trick in his bag and some reap massive rewards while others are substantially less successful. The horror elements blended into the film are mostly cliche cues we’ve seen a dozen times before. Reflections in mirrors do things the person isn’t doing, lights go out and a dark figure darts across the frame, faces morph and CGI bumps move around under the skin. One scene that is greatly effective is also very simple – Nina has submerged herself underwater in the bathtub and opening her eyes sees her double staring maniacally down at her. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother is more effective and creepy than any tacked on thriller tropes.

The role Mila Kunis plays is mostly a MacGuffin and the lesbian scene seems to be in the film only for the sensationalist factor. It doesn’t add anything or further the plot. Winona Ryder pops up and does good work in a truly thankless role.

None of it is subtle – it is all over the top and taken to, I suppose, appropriately theatrical heights. It all works, for the most part, because of mesmerizing performances and Aronofsky’s bold visual flourishes. As impressive as Portman is and for all that Nina goes through, I think that it could have and should have gone further – I don’t feel that the character ever really cracks enough. For too much of the film Nina too closely resembles the ballerina figurine in her music box – too poised, too rigid. In the end, when Nina literally becomes the Black Swan, the film both succeeds and falters. Portman pulls the transformation off with aplomb, but some of the effects utilized – Nina’s neck elongating and looking like stretched rubber, her legs buckling and bending at an unnatural angle – are more ridiculous than riveting. Other bits – the rash on her shoulder sprouting tiny black feathers, her eyes glowing a demonic red and her possessed dance (during which she grows huge dark wings) are most remarkable.

I do have to compliment the music, by the always reliable Clint Mansell which is used to especially great effect and the cinematography by the brilliant Matthew Libatique. And I do commend any film that is this willing to fully follows its own vision, but in the end Black Swan is just a little too ambitious in its scope and a little too shallow and underwritten – especially considering there are three credited screenwriters. It takes us for a heck of a ride, but it never quite soars. B

Do the Loco-Motion with me.

Inland Empire (2006)

After the sumptuous grandeur of Mulholland Drive, David Lynch decided to shoot his next feature in digital video (and has said that he now will use this technique on all consecutive projects). The result is not as distracting or cruddy as I had been heard but the film does suffer a bit from being done this way – some scenes are especially murky and I did find myself missing Lynch’s former polished visuals. However, the director still manages to give everything that signature David Lynch look.

The film also was shot without a working screenplay, the scenes being written for the most part on the same day they were filmed and this gives the project a bit of a cobbled together, piecemeal feel. But none of this is enough to derail the director’s overall vision and he pulls a magnificent rabbit out of his hat – one hell of a sister to the Hollywood tale of Mulholland Drive. Many of the familiar Lynch tropes are on display here, but it never feels like he is repeating himself. The only segments I thought that did not really go well with the film were the bits from the short series Rabbits, which felt forced and unrelated to the rest of what was on screen.

Laura Dern gives a phenomenal, multilayered, stunning performance – especially considering that she never really knew who her character was or what role she was playing – but maybe that works better in a David Lynch film? If Lynch had employed a proper editor and reigned in some of the excess this may have rivaled Mulholland Drive. The beauty, however, is that it still comes close. B+

Feed your head.

This is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. I’m talking about skin crawling, looking over your shoulder, sleeping with the lights on, bone deep dread inducing terror. Compulsively readable, fiendishly subversive, brilliantly plotted and executed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers style paranoia in spades. The ending is a little too pat but I still recommend this to any fan of horror literature. Don’t read it alone. Seriously.

To the woodshed.

The Woods (2006)

It is 1965 and Heather (Agnes Brucker, looking like Alicia Witt’s younger sister) is on her way to Falburn Academy. Her uptight, blond, pink pill hat wearing mother, Alice (Emma Campbell channeling Elisabeth Hasselbeck) has had it with Heather’s out of control behavior. The last straw was when after the two had an argument Heather set fire to a tree and nearly burnt their house down. Heather’s father, Joe (the cooler than cool, hotter than hot Bruce Campbell) isn’t really on board with the whole shipping Heather off to boarding school thing but Alice wears the pants in this family and so it is hasta luego, Heather. Arriving at Falburn, Heather is greeted by the head mistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson, who appears dazed throughout).

Heather is a teenager, she’s angry, she’s just been dumped by her parents and sure isn’t going to win any awards for her interpersonal skills. She doesn’t really fit in at Falburn, but she doesn’t really try to either. Still, she does eventually form a friendship with Marcy (Lauren Birkell) who she sits next to one day at lunch and who has the bed beside her in the dormitory. Their friendship is sealed one night after lights out when they bond while listening to Lesley Gore on Marcy’s prized transistor radio.

But just because Heather has now made a friend doesn’t mean she is happy at Falburn. The teachers are all odd, everyone seems to operate according to an unspoken set of rules, drinking the milk in the dining hall is a major big deal  – and not because it helps build strong bones. Also, because Heather’s mother requested financial aid, Heather is required to take an extremely bizarre “special” class – a one on one with Ms. Traverse that involves the head mistress asking a bunch of really personal and none-of-her-business questions.

After an especially difficult day that drives her to the brink, Heather phones her mother and begs to be allowed to return home. When her mother won’t hear of it, Heather decides to run away and sets off into the woods. But in the dark of forest Heather finds she may be worse off than ever. She becomes disoriented and begins to panic when she hears strange sounds and sees what appears to be something or someone moving among the trees. She makes a run for it and emerges from the woods to finds that she is right back at Falburn – and everyone is gathered outside, having found Heather was missing. None of the teachers look pleased to see her and Ms. Traverse gives her an especially unsympathetic glare.

The next night in the dormitory a few of the girls tease Heather about her runaway attempt, which leads to talk about the woods. There is an old story that is told about them, which all the girls have heard except Heather. It goes something like this – one day, a long time ago, three young girls came out of the woods and were taken in by the school. Sometime later a few of the students found the three in an empty classroom – doing some sort of spell or ritual. Branding the trio witches, the students shunned and tormented the three, and one day the girls were chased into the woods by the students. And there the threesome called upon the woods for revenge and and in return offered up the souls of the student body. The spirit of the woods took possession of the students and when they all finally came back out of the woods, they were lead by head hexer, Clara, whose first order of business was to kill the headmistress with an ax.

Heather doesn’t take this tale too seriously – she isn’t phased, OK? But she is having nightmares – about the one empty bed in the dorm – about something that comes slithering in through the windows as the girls sleep. Heather asks about the vacant bed and is told that the girl who it belongs to is in the hospital – she had an “accident.” Ooooh, sinister vagueness!

As it goes, girls begin disappearing, their beds found to be covered with leaves, some sneaky vines right out of The Ruins show up, Heather gets all suspicious about the school and what is really going on and we do not get a single jeweled peacock with tail feathers that can be removed to serve as a weapon, not one secret passage and nothing even close to being as cool as a room filled with barbed wire.

We do get is a scene that is lifted directly from The Craft, though – remember the part when Robin Tunney is sitting in class and she takes her pencil and kind of makes it float on her desk? Well, big woo, Heather can do that, too.

There are two bits I did like. Heather’s father finally puts his foot down and decides to take Heather out of Falburn and back home. He drives with grumpy mom in tow, collects his daughter, and the three drive off, leaving the school behind. Silly Heather, she really does think she’s home free here. Well, the woods aren’t ready to give her up and so seize the car, flip it, pull Heather’s mother out a window and drop her to her death. After this ordeal Heather wakes up in a hospital and finds her father is alive and in another room. In frenetic cuts we go between Heather screaming and struggling as she is held down and tied to a bed and her father with Ms. Traverse who is doing… well, something to him. I am unclear as to what exactly this something she does is and I cannot explain it. At first I thought she was smothering him, but no, we see him not dead later when Heather is taken out of the hospital. He appears to be in some kind of catatonic state. The dueling back and forth of Heather’s ordeal and that of her father is well done and the only time the film is even remotely effective.

The other part I liked for a very different reason is when Joe comes out of whatever spell he was under and promptly pukes up some black goo and a small piece of twig. He looks at what his body has just expelled and then looks up and around the room he is in, which we see is filled with patients that have fallen silent and stopped what they were doing to stare in disgust and disbelief. Sadly this is really the only opportunity Bruce Campbell gets to shine. He is sorely underused in a thankless role – barely in the film at all and the brief time he is on screen he is given absolutely nothing to do. This is the only moment in the film that could be called humorous. The Woods takes itself way, way too seriously.

Quite clearly Suspira and to a lesser degree The Evil Dead are being referenced here. Yet not once does The Woods manage to muster up anything that makes it worthy of being compared to either.

This was director Lucky McKee’s follow up to the cult hit May. I was looking forward to seeing it. The cast is full of talented individuals, the story sounded old school nifty and McKee had already demonstrated himself capable of pulling off a solid genre piece – and even one that mixed it up a bit and didn’t always stay inside the lines. He seemed also, to have the heart of a horror fan. In May we not only see a character reading a magazine with a picture from Argento’s Opera in it, but later the same character says they are going to see a showing of Trauma. McKee seems to know his stuff, right? The plot of The Woods could not be more similar to Suspiria. This could almost qualify as a remake that dropped the dance academy and replaced it with an all girls school.

And don’t even get me started on that ending – what a joke. It could be said that the climax The Woods offers up is no more bare bones than the finale of Suspiria. I will admit that film’s climax is a little underwhelming but I think the style and fever dream flamboyance with which it is done more than compensates for any slightness.

The first time I saw this film, I threw the DVD across the room when it was over. I detested it. I didn’t like anything about it. I don’t loathe it with as much active hostility now, but watching it a second time hasn’t changed my opinion about what a dud it is. I definitely don’t recommend it. It is quite unsatisfying. What went so wrong? I think I read about problems behind the scenes. Was there studio tampering? This was supposed to be released in 2004. I remember only because M. Night Shyamalan was working on The Village at the same time and The Village was originally called The Woods before the tile was changed to avoid confusion. The Woods wasn’t released until two years later when it went straight to DVD.

It is all just so routine and spiritless – where is the passion, where is that extra little oomph? The entire cast seems to be sleepwalking through their parts. Patricia Clarkson, such a gifted actress, comes off like she’s heavily sedated. The fault is not really hers but more the role itself – Ms. Traverse is extremely underwritten – never is she menacing or bewitching as such a character should be.

So, there you have it. I watched it so you don’t have to. If for some reason you do decide to take a walk through The Woods even after my valiant and selfless attempts to discourage you then you have only yourself to blame. C-

Last night, I dreamt I went to Springwood again.

Show and Tell # 2.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

This sequel feels more dated than the 1984 original and is more disgusting than frightening. A strong sense of visuals works in the film’s favor – and that is all it has going for it. That being the case, the set pieces here have nothing on the eerie otherworldly dreamscapes of the original.

And how does Freddy come back this time? He is reincarnated by a dog named Jason that urinates fire. By this point the character has fully morphed into his bad one-liner spouting self – and he is still scarier than the Jackie Earle Haley Krueger. D+