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.