Monday, December 28, 2009

Top 10 Horror of 2009

With yet another short week at work due to the impending holidays and therefore, no real desire to actually accomplish whatever it is I get paid to do there, I spent a good portion of the day compiling this list (and rearranging a be fair, it may change again).

Note: Based on all horror made readily available in the U.S. in 2009, not on imdb's official release year or any other such nonsense.

10. The Last House on the Left

A surprisingly effective remake of the Wes Craven classic that trumps the original in several key areas. Gone is the awkward humor that was more distracting than anything and the performances, especially within the gang, are far less cartoonish in this one. The biggest issue here was the decision to spare Mari's life as this made her parent's subsequent vengeance less powerful (and considering how unsettling the rape scene was, I cannot imagine her death would have been any more shocking for the audience). As well, the microwave ending scene was just plain stupid and clearly tacked on in post.

09. Martyrs

While not nearly at the level of triumph that so many in the horror community made Martyrs out to be, it did remain a fascinating, if not flawed venture. The complete tonal shift halfway through the film could have been handled better and while I appreciated the more thought-provoking aspects regarding what comes after death (or in the moment of) and how an individual's personal suffering can affect this, the overall message was muddled and lacking in any real substance.

08. My Bloody Valentine 3-D

Celebrated mainly as a return to the shlocky (and always entertaining) 1980's slashers, much like the original of which it is loosely based, the 2009 version is fun, but disposable. To be honest, I do not recall much at all about the characters or storyline and it ranks as highly as it does simply because the 3-D effects were used well and the inclusion of Tom Atkins instantly makes anything better. I have heard that the use of 3-D is nowhere near as good for home viewing so this is likely a "one and done" feature for me.

07. Drag Me To Hell

An open letter to Sam Raimi:

Dear Sam,

Congratulations on a truly great return to form. No one wants you to make Spiderman 4. You are better than that.


06. Orphan

Based on the director's previous work, the abysmal House of Wax remake and the recent trend of even worse "evil kid" movies like Joshua, The Unborn, practically every lazy American version of a J-Horror, etc., expectations for Orphan were razor thin. The last thing I expected was a well-crafted but still wonderfully trashy and exploitative film with a twist that, for once, did not induce any groans. We need more mainstream horror willing to pull no punches.

05. Zombieland

I almost hasten to even consider this a horror film as the inclusion of zombies doesn't necessarily relegate a movie into the genre, but I will, seeing as it would be practically criminal to leave it off the list. One of the best horror/comedies of all time, falling only behind classics like Return of the Living Dead and Slither and a cameo that marks the best work that particular actor has done in a decade.

04. Deadgirl

A truly disturbing film that stuck with me for days after and will be rewatched again and again for years to come. This would likely be higher on the list if the last scene didn't completely go against what was built up from the beginning in regards to one of the main protaganist's intentions...

03. Trick 'r Treat

I really hope someone at Warner Brothers got fired over this. With all the junk that horror fans have to put up with from major studios in their newfound desire to appeal only to high school kids and the opening weekend numbers, Warners sits on a bonafide classic for over 2 years before dumping it into the video market? Halloween now has its quintessential film, outside of, you know, Halloween.

02. The House of the Devil

As noted in my review of this film about a month ago, The House of the Devil is like a long lost classic you happened to stumble across on late night TV and can't believe that you missed it for some long. Horror filmmaking at its best and I will watch anything writer/director Ti West does from this point on. (Well, maybe not Cabin Fever 2 seeing as he apparently has disowned it due to studio interference.)

01. Pontypool

I knew nothing of this film when I watched it on VOD earlier this year and was instantly blown away. As suspenseful and tense as any film I have ever seen, Pontypool is a slow burn and much like the best of David Lynch, a film that must be reexamined through multiple viewings to fully appreciate its many layers. Recommended to everyone.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Random Film Review #3: The House of the Devil (2009)

Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue, channeling Karen Allen) is an overly stressed and financially strained college student who answers a simple ad for a babysitting job to be done on the night of a lunar eclipse. Upon arriving at the house, she meets the Ulmans (genre favorites Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), a strange but seemingly harmless couple who inform her that she will actually be watching over an elderly woman. Despite her skepticism, Samantha agrees to take the job. And as any good babysitter will do, Samantha begins to snoop around the house and slowly discovers that she may be in for something far more sinister than what she signed up for.

Set in the early 1980's, The House of the Devil is an almost pitch perfect throwback to the horror films of that era. Director Ti West clearly has a true adoration and respect for the genre (unlike the Michael Bay/Platinum Dunes remake machine soiling the megaplexes these days) and has accomplished a wonderful slow burn of a movie that effectively builds tension as well as any movie of recent memory. Dialogue is sparse as a good portion of the middle of the film is dominated by Samantha being left alone to her own devices within the house and this is where the film will lose some viewers, but the snail's pace works in a movie like this because it is all about the small reveals and the big pay-off (which does not disappoint). As well, West is harkening back to an era where many of the classic horror films did not rely on the jump scares and buckets of blood that make up most of what we get today and a welcome change it is.

The look of The House of the Devil is also a major selling point as everything from the title sequence to soundtrack (The Fixx's 'One Thing Leads To Another' is used to great effect) to the graininess of the film's stock adds to the distinct feel of the time period that is being celebrated. Unlike Grindhouse (2007) with its exagerrated blemishes and scarred images, The House of the Devil merely appears as if you just discovered a long lost classic on late night cable.

If there is a complaint to be had, it would appear that West has difficulty in adequately directing action scenes. While the majority of the film is very meticulous in its set up, the third act does get a little messy and the camerawork follows this pattern. I have yet to see any of West's earlier work (though that will change in short order) so I cannot comment on whether this is a consistent issue with his films, but it was a bit jarring considering how well constructed everything had been up to the climax.

Nevertheless, it is finds like this, as infrequent as they may be these days, that keep my hope for the state of horror alive and well.

(Currently available through the Video On Demand feature through Time Warner Cable (maybe others). DVD release: February 2010)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Random Film Review #2: Class of 1999 (1990)

In the not too distant future (or as of this writing, approximately 10 years ago) certain areas around major cities have become so dangerous that they are characterized as "free-fire zones" and the police refuse to enter. There is no law. A high school in Seattle has decided to reopen its doors in one of these zones with the help of 3 new teachers, all modified military robots who have been brought in to straighten out the ruffians by any means necessary. Lots of things die.

As I wrote last month in my review of Class of 1984, this is a sequel of sorts though it shares little with the original outside of a few vague thematic points. Whereas 1984 attempted, and more than often succeeded, at conveying important points on the growing state of unrest in American schools, 1999 is pure schlock and exploitation at its finest. Our hero, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, doing the best he can at being a poor man's Corey Feldman) is released from prison and ready to go straight, much to the consternation of his old gang, the Blackhearts. At the same time, we are introduced to the robo-educators (Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick and John P. Ryan, the last of whom really seems to be relishing his role) who waste little time disposing of the most drug-addled of the youth and then turn their attentions on pitting the Blackhearts against their rivals, the Razorheadz by making it appear that they are wasting each other. In the end, the gangs join forces and demand battle royale against the system. We also get the treat of Malcolm McDowell as the apprehensive new principal (though he is basically phoning it in) and Stacy Keach as the lead scientist presiding over the operation and sporting the future of rat tail hairstyles.

To be fair, I have found that the majority of my favorite films are ones that I remember fondly from my youth so its difficult to say how much impact Class of 1999 would have were I to view it for the first time today, but as it stands, everything works for me. The acting is purposefully atrocious, the dialogue forced ("You might as well stick your dick in a meat grinder, Cody.") and the effects are as good as can be for the low budget provided. Still, there is not a wasted scene nor does the action, once it begins, let up for a second. Fans of unnecessary gore should also take note as there is an abundance of messiness.

A few other moments of note:

-Our hero's full face stretched disapproval of his family's drug addiction: "You're all fucking...PATHETIC!"

-The discovery of an entire cabinet full of WD40 in the townhome the robo-educators share.

-The "War Zone," a place in which the Blackhearts and Razorheadz meet to wage battle that is full of conveniently placed cover and for good measure as each gang is packing enough assault weapons and explosive devices to stage a small revolution. (Nevermind the fact that they sit just feet apart from one another day in and day out at their school).

-Some truly Schwarzenegger-esque one liners (which should surprise no one seeing as director Mark L. Lester helmed Commando a few years earlier): "Have a good stretch, Coach."

-And of course, Cody Culp's highly inspiring cry for unity: "Inside this school are three inhuman teaching monsters, the ones running this game. They kidnapped my girl. They killed Sonny, Reedy, Mohawk and Noser and Angel...You gotta know who your real enemies are. Now I'm gonna go in there and waste some teachers, are you with me? (It is at this moment, while viewing with friends, that a single tear will roll down your cheek so be sure to wipe it away before anyone notices).

Highly Recommended.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Random Film Review #1: Class of 1984 (1982)

Andy Norris (Perry King) is starting his first day as the new music teacher at Lincoln High School. He is an emergency replacement for Mr. Goldstein, who had an "accident." Right from the start he is told by fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (the excellent Roddy McDowall) that if you want to survive at Lincoln High, you better learn to look the other way because many of the students are split into violent gangs that run drug and prostitution rings and all but rule the school. Of course, Andy Norris is an idealist, if not just wet behind the ears, and ignores said warning thus igniting a feud between himself and one particular gang of punks led by Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). One thing escalates into another until Norris' primal instincts take over and he becomes as savage and unrelenting as the gangs...and then they rape and kidnap his wife. It should be pretty clear what happens after that.

I actually watched the sequel (or more appropriately, the continuation of themes) to this gem many years back when Cinemax was worth the trouble of sneaking out of bed for late at night, six inches from the screen with the volume just loud enough to not wake the parents. Class of 1999 was basically set in a post-apocalyptic future where teenage gangs ruled vast expanses of land and the school system resorts to employing three military-grade androids to act as teachers and maintain order, that is until their war games training takes over...just try not to dwell too long on why such powerful teenage gangs would bother showing up to school in the first place.

But of course, before there could be cyberpunk, there had to be punk and like most every great 1980's movie, Class of 1984 is firmly rooted in the movement. Nevermind the incredibly lame Alice Cooper song that opens the film, we are soon awash in a sea of thunder face paint, torn sleeves and graffiti'd leather. At the same time, though, writer/director Mark L. Lester (who also was the driving force behind the sequel) understands that it is key to build sustainable characters as the tenuous relationship between Norris and Stegman must be a believable one. While Norris is a bit cliched as the teacher who wants to "make a difference," Stegman is well-drawn out as a genuinely intelligent and sensitive young man who has latched onto his outsider status as so many others did in response to the dynamics of the No Future 1980's. It also has an interesting commentary on how the administration and police are basically helpless in punishing the gangs since the administration is tied down by school politics and the police by the fact that they are all juveniles (not to mention foreshadowing the episodes of extreme school violence that would arise in the coming years). The tension builds through most of the first hour as Norris' frustration grows with both his lack of help in dealing with the youth gone wild and the lengths that they will go to draw out his own baser instincts. The third act is significantly more violent than anything before it and for good measure as there is nothing more disappointing than a slow build to nothing.

Class of 1984 also contains a brief appearance by a somewhat pudgy Michael J. Fox who learns the hard way that snitches get stitches.

Check it out or else I'll cut you, white meat!