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So, you may have noticed the reviews haven’t been coming so fast and furious lately. I plan to rectify this soon. The one year anniversary of this website is approaching and so, too, is the best month ever… October! Ok, I know it isn’t exactly right around the corner… but I saw Halloween decorations on display at the Cracker Barrel, and if they can get their game on this early, I see no reason why I cannot. Stay tuned! (Did you happen to notice how the title of this post is a CLEVER riff on horror and not just the lame genericness it at first appears to be? You did, right?)
Scream 4 (2011)
Eleven years after the Scream trilogy ended with a dull whimper in Scream 3 the franchise is back. Wes Craven again directs (he has so far helmed all of the Scream films) and stars Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette (the main trio from the first three installments) also return. And I am happy to say that Kevin Williamson is once again (having penned Scream and Scream 2) responsible for the script. You will remember (won’t you?) that Ehren Kruger wrote the less than stellar Scream 3. I am very pleased Williamson has returned to the fray and even if Kruger did do touch up work on Scream 4 (as some have said) only Williamson gets a screenwriting credit.
Perennial survivor Sidney Prescott (Campbell, who shines) has written a memoir about her numerous experiences with the Ghostface killer(s) – she’s been targeted three times now – all the way from high school to Hollywood. Her book is a bestseller and her final stop on her book tour is back to where it all began – her hometown of Woodsboro. Oh, yeah, and it is the anniversary of the original murders. Deputy Dewey (Arquette) has become Sheriff Dewey and is married to ex-journalist Gale Weathers (Cox) – who penned her own bestseller about the killings, it being adapted into the movie Stab, which spawned six sequels.
Surprisingly, Sidney is barely back in Woodsboro long enough to finish her appearance at the local bookstore before the bodies begin piling up. And we have a whole new cast of characters to contend with – and suspect. Mary McDonell (given far too little screen time) as Sidney’s aunt, Sidney’s young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) with whom Sidney appears to have more than a few things in common, Marley Shelton as Deputy Hicks, Adam Brody as Deputy Hoss, Alison Brie as Sidney’s comic relief publicist – and Jill’s gaggle of horror obsessed high school pals played by a trope of young Hollywood hotlets. My favorite new addition is Hayden Panettiere – though sporting a questionable hairstyle, her character, Kirby Reed, is a gem. This is probably my favorite set of Scream characters since the original – though I have major soft spots for Parker Posey in the third installment (she being one of the few reasons to actually watch it) and the sorority sisters played by Rebecca Gayheart and Portia de Rossi in Scream 2.
Yeah, yeah, you say – so it is any good or what? I really enjoyed it. Scream 4 does manage to justify the resurrection of the series after so much time. It also provides a hell of a social commentary on the age we’re living in – and it gets in some nice digs at the current state of the horror film, too. It works, it is fun and while it never feels as weighty as the first two, it doesn’t come across as just a tossed off, mediocre ploy to pull in a profit either. Yet, there are some areas where it is lacking. Gale is sorely missing through most of the action after a stab wound lands her in the hospital. The main narrative thrust of the film – this being a new generation with remakes all the rage, the new Ghostface is making a “reboot” – while an interesting idea, is handled too casually and never fully realized. Also, with so many new characters, some suffer from underdevelopment and at times come too close to horror film stereotype, by doing things which are less than intelligent – but their behavior is never really senseless or annoying enough to make you hope for their demise. And the final FINAL showdown in the ICU is over baked and too similar to other scenes in recent horror.
However these are mostly minor quibbles and what the filmmakers get right far outweigh the flaws. There is a corker of an opening that has something to say about everything from the Saw movies to the Scream franchise’s own inherent cliches. The big reveal is really something – it is amazingly well done and cuts deep. This is the best denouement since the first film and it packs a sucker punch of immediacy and relevance – it is quite ingenious and satisfying. The kill scenes raise the bar on violence in the series and are threaded with a brutal nihilism that makes them feel fresh and startling. I dug the Möbius strip meta-ness and the pop culture allusions – that is part of the charm of the Scream films and the humor is balanced quite proportionally with the horror. This rightly should have been part three as it provides the most logical and seamless close to the series. But with two more sequels apparently planned, this is a better than it has any right to be beginning of a potential new trilogy. Hopefully the filmmakers can maintain this degree of enjoyability and effectiveness. B
The Devil’s Chair (2007)
Andrew Howard, who played a similarly villainous role in the I Spit On Your Grave remake, here stars as smarmy Nick West, who as the film opens is dropping acid and investigating an abandoned asylum with his girlfriend. They discover the titular contraption – a device that when activated opens a doorway to a hellish dimension and whisks away whoever is unlucky enough to be sitting in it. Nick’s girlfriend tries it out, goes bye-bye and Nick is left high (literally) and dry, with a story that isn’t very believable. He finds himself soon in another asylum – only this time one that is working and fully staffed. Years later, Nick appears to be recovering and to have gained back some grasp on reality – so naturally psychiatrist, Dr. Willard (David Gant) decides it is time to return to the old asylum and suss out what really happened. I really admired the way the story was set up and how it initially unfolded – the doctor gathering his colleagues and the return to the asylum with Nick, felt very Legend of Hell House-y. It was very well done and full of potential. Unfortunately as soon as the group arrives at the asylum the film goes off the rails.
Nick provides a stream of consciousness narration during the course of the film – at times it seems as if he is speaking directly to the audience – and the monologues have some flashes of wit, but for the most part the voice overs seem a little too pleased with their cleverness, which makes the film feel self-satisfying and unappealing smug – of course you have to take into consideration the character who is relaying the tale to us and what type of person he is. I wouldn’t call this an “enjoyable” film – any hints that it may be develop into a fun little supernatural jaunt are quickly and efficiently dashed.
I will say (venturing here into spoiler territory) that this is one of those “it was all in their head” films – the majority of what we see on screen never actually transpires and only in the few final minutes do we get a glimpse of the “reality” of the situation. It is a serious sucker punch and even if you saw it coming still manages to be disturbingly gruesome and jarring. But I wanted to know more of what was behind Nick’s madness – yes, I know it is almost always more frightening when we don’t know what motivates the monster, but when the script so thoroughly stages the entire experience from Nick’s point of view and entrenches us so firmly in his mind from the first frame – well, I expect something a little more than just some post-modern spewage. The character of Nick – and the film itself – goes to such lengths to mislead us – but what of the time we had invested in the manufactured narrative? It seems a disservice for all that to be revealed as a mere ploy, no matter how well played and especially considering how flippantly Nick reveals the truth. It is one of the better “it was all in their head” films but it is also undeniably manipulative and the cumulative effect is one of disappointment rather than awe. These type of stories are only truly successful when something is gained from the deception – there seems to be no real reason for it here, aside from the “We tricked you! Look what we did!” angle.
The Devil’s Chair isn’t a complete disaster and isn’t without merit, but it left me feeling ungratified and cheaply fooled. A good use of music, some interesting creature effects, a superbly intense and unnerving performance from Andrew Howard, a brutal and harrowing ending – but mostly all for naught. C+
All right, kids, I’m sending out a warning. Avoid Siren. I admit I was easily drawn in. Maxim UK gave it a five star review. Some other websites wrote about it and made it sound like it was a trip worth taking. It features Anna Skellern, who was one of the few enjoyable things about The Descent Part 2 and she fills a similar role here. She is a really good actress. I like seeing her in genre work – but she deserves better. The film supplies us with some throwaway references to Greek mythology. It features a scantily clad woman on the cover. The packaging is misleading and will guide you to your doom. Things start out semi-intriguingly enough – Anna and her boyfriend Eoin Macken attempt some role play sex in a dingy rest stop bathroom before meeting up with Anna’s old college pal Anthony Jabre. The threesome head out on a boat christened Persephone (of course) and plan to make their way to the villa of Anna’s boyfriend’s boss. They don’t quite make it and for a brief moment Siren appears to be pulling a Triangle. A distress call later a man dies aboard the boat (bleeding from his ears) and they meet a strange and seemingly traumatized vixen named Silka (Tereza Srbova) on a nearby island, where they decide to set up camp when Persephone putters out. Silka knows more than she is letting on and when the dudes start tripping out hardcore, Silka seduces Anna. None of it makes sense in any satisfactory way and there is no payoff to pull it all together and reward us for our time spent. The tune employed for “the siren song” however is quite good – a moody and menacing little number by a band called Warpaint – it is worth checking out even if this mess isn’t. Plug up your ears, cover your eyes and pass Siren by. D
The Grindhouse films have one hell of a feminist slant – and coming from two prominent male directors, working at the top of their game, this is something to behold (especially for the podophiliacs among us). In the first feature, Planet Terror, not only does Fergie know exactly what is wrong with her car when it overheats, but she also doesn’t need any man to help her fix it. And Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who loses a leg in a zombie attack, initially takes the new with tears and even though it is her ex-flame Freddy Rodriguez who gives her the power to see beyond it (and first the wooden stump to replace it and later the iconic machine gun) it is she who comes out of the film as the supreme hero. When escaping from the military base in the final act, even Freddy stands back as she vanquishes the foes with her new appendage – and he is a character presented to us as major player, masterful with weapons, even awakening respect in the hard ass sheriff when his true identity is “revealed.” He is El Wray, after all. But it is Cherry Darling who in the end protects and continues the human race, seeking the lost and misplaced and taking them to her kingdom by the sea.
Planet Terror: B+
Death Proof is even more female empowerment – Kurt Russell playing an insane and homicidal stunt man may ravage and ruin five beauties before getting his due, but is it a new generation of female drivers who give him his comeuppance, not about to let him get away with his little joyride. Death Proof is also remarkable for the time it takes to introduce us to the various characters, to let us live with them for a while and experience their world – they don’t exist merely to give us something pretty to look at before being quickly executed. We follow two separate sets of girls for quite considerable durations before the mechanics of the plot kick in – the girls are verbal, catty and supremely enjoyable. The majority of this film is simply us listening in on the conversations they have as they hang out – this is significant not only because these passages are made as exciting as the action sequences – but because they exists at all. How rare is it not only for a film to feature such strong women in central roles – but so many of them – and to allow them to actually fill the screen and come into their own while other elements – the cars, the carnage – take a backseat. Give a glance to the male counterparts and you’ll find they’re all disappointments, dicks or psychotic. The Grindhouse films may be a throw back to the 70s flicks that inspired the directors (complete with fake trailers and mangled and missing reels) but they are about as far from exploitation as you can get.
Death Proof: B+
The Box (2009)
So, remember when I was pontificating recently about those directors who are making films that are clearly their own riffs on the Twilight Zone and that perhaps the filmmakers would be better served by simply filming one of the old television scripts? Well, I still stand by that. Let us not use Richard Kelly’s The Box as an example of my idea put into practice.
The Richard Matheson short story that this is based upon did not begin life as a Twilight Zone script – it was a piece he wrote in 1970 entitled “Button, Button” and it wasn’t until the “new” 19801 Twilight Zone reboot that the story was translated into episode form. Incidentally, Richard Matheson is responsible for some of the best original Twilight Zone scripts of the series – he is a seminal horror writer and a master at what he does. One of the reasons Richard Kelly’s adaptation of The Box fails is because Kelly personalizes the story with especially odd filler that he apparently culled from his own childhood – there is too much that is simply not necessary. The story would have (and did in Matheson’s own version) worked much better without everything being explained – more should have been left open for interpretation. I recently complained in my review for Vanishing on 7th Street that the script supplied us with nothing – no resolution, no answers why, and The Box is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. A nice middle ground is what is required, especially for mind twisters of this ilk. Kelly offers no subtlety here – it is as if he no longer trusts his audience to come to conclusions on their own. Oh, how seriously the movie takes itself. Oh, how little reason there is for us to do the same.
I am a bit surprised that Kelly is able to keep getting funding for his films from major studios. Donnie Darko is a film I consider a minor masterpiece but the director’s output since then has been nearly disastrous. I have not seen Southland Tales and I have no interest to – from all I have heard it is a film to be missed. Now The Box. Another blunder. Kelly seems to be making films he feels strongly about and putting his heart and soul into them and I do hate to fault a filmmaker for that, but he really needs to reign himself in. The man who so spryly and wittily dissected an era and the mind space of the numerous characters inhabiting it, is nowhere on display here.
Some scenes do come close to conjuring up some potent paranoia, but they never quite make it. The script is a wild goose chase with some especially atrocious dialogue, the ending is a total wipe out and the rest is a plodding mess. The acting is less than captivating and Cameron Diaz trots out a truly heinous and mangled accent. The only performance I did enjoyed was from the always reliable Celia Weston, who portrays the mother of Cameron’s character. I wish they’d used more of her.
The score deserves a better film to showcase it – it goes a long way in making the proceedings feel more tangible and doom laced than they ever are. When James Marsden says late in the game, “I’m looking for the nearest exit” you’ll know just how he feels. C-
Body Snatchers (1993)
Back in the day, this was the first adaptation of the Body Snatchers that I ever saw and even now it still manages to creep me out. All of the Body Snatchers films are solid efforts worth checking out, with the exception of the 2002 Nicole Kidman redo. This 90s incarnation flourishes under the assured direction of Abel Ferrara and features script input from Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon (who was originally intended to direct this film). Body Snatchers takes all of the best elements from the previous outings and distills them into one lean, terrifying vision that hard wires directly into our age old fears – of the dark, of sleep, of losing our parents, of not fitting in, of being the new kid on the block. Undeservedly overlooked and underappreciated, the tale translates well to a present day/Military Base setting – where everyone already behaves like a pod person to begin with. Gabrielle Anwar is a fitting protagonist and the film opens with her character already referring to her father’s new wife as “the woman who replaced my mother.” Voice over narration in movies usually annoy me but I enjoyed Anwar’s sparse soliloquies. This is almost as good as the 70s remake – and Meg Tilly is truly the stuff of nightmares. B+
Christopher Smith has really matured as a writer and director – in leaps and bounds, in fact. I found his debut Creep to be far too low key and routine (although it is always nice to see Franka Potente) and Severance more humorous than actually horrific. With Triangle he really comes into his own. The film opens on what could easily be mistaken for a slice of David Lynch suburbia and the soundtrack supplies us with a lullaby from a half remembered dream. It would be almost too easy to say: Imagine David Lynch directing a Friday the 13th film (Jason Takes Manhattan with the “Manhattan” bits removed and no hockey mask, but baghead from Part 2). Yet Triangle is so much more than that – it is not easily categorized and it is not Lynch-lite or a slasher knock-off – it is a wholly original entity in its own right. Each time I watch it I am more impressed – this isn’t one of those films that exists solely for twists and turns that will surprise the audience at the time but serve no sensible purpose to the story and can be easily debunked under the slightest scrutiny. Triangle is thoughtful, expertly constructed, precisely calibrated and mesmerizing. Melissa George does her best work to date – her performance is essential to the success of the film and could equally make or break it – she never falters, indeed she is flawless, pitch perfect and stunning. This is one of the most satisfying and rewarding films I have seen in a long, long while. B+