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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

By Request - THE HAUNTING (Wise 1963): An Elegant Ghost Story, To Say the Least

Prime Real Estate

4 Stars

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Oh, oops. Wrong movie. 

In all seriousness though, the striking (albeit superficial) similarities to Rebecca (Hitchcock 1940) really help create the creepy atmosphere of this film. Consider the dreamy internal monologue, the menacing and personified house, the terrified yet terrifying maid, the engraved journal; all work together to set a familiar tone that is crucial to what author Pam Keesey describes as “the power of suggestion”.

After watching this haunted house story, you may notice that it showed nothing. But you might not. The suspense created by the use of sound is so visceral that it hand’t really occurred to me until the very end that I hadn’t actually seen the ghost at any time. While this is a tactic Stephen King has openly discussed his disapproval for, arguing that Wise’s decision to never “open the door” is simply “playing to tie rather than to win”, I’m betting most would disagree. 

Quit your bitching King, it’s a powerful method.

In fact, the film has even aged quite well, apparent in how believable the characters remain. 

The protagonist, Eleanor, might be the least reconcilable with modern perceptions because of her “nervousness”, but as a character she is still intriguing. Being inside of her head allows the viewer an understanding of how complex her relationship to the outside world is, but we learn even more about her from the prodding of Theo, a confident beauty who is instantly drawn to Eleanor. Her romantic inclination towards Eleanor is immediate; when the two first meet Theo refers to her as Nell, stating “it is the affectionate nickname for Eleanor, isn’t it?” And, cue the deliciously telling smirk. 

Meanwhile, Luke has a rather small role but he brings the comedic relief as he breezes about for most of the film with no concerns. All three are outcasts in their own right, and while you may not expect them to ever be in a room together, the trio has been carefully assembled by Dr. Markway. Handsome and calm, Markway eventually becomes torn between his ethics and his pursuit of truth, leading him to wonder, “maybe I’m being selfish” when he reflects upon the madness the group has been rocked by.

I haven’t seen the remake in well over a decade so I won’t pretend to remember it. All I can say, is that I think Catherine Zeta-Jones would be a perfect Theo. Overall though, it seems the film missed the memo on the power of suggestion. Keesey writes: “The remake of The Haunting and its failure to measure up to Wise’s original reminds us that, despite the rapid development of SFX technology and the untapped potential of this new resource, SFX needs to be a tool in the service of storytelling and not the story itself”.

The Haunting never needed SFX, all it needed was a story and a house. After all “It’s a Deadly Serious Place” (Dr. Markway).

DARK TOUCH: When Violence is an Epidemic...

"Children are easily persuaded"

5 Stars!

This is easily the most intense "victim-hero"horror film I have ever seen. Heavily influenced by Carrie (1976), this captivating story is relentless in it's display of trauma and violence.

See my full review at, a wonderful all-things-horror, must-follow site, which I was privileged to guest post for this week.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A LITTLE BIT ZOMBIE (2012), A Little Bit Great

Falling somewhere between Peter Jackson’s Dead/Alive (AKA Braindead) and Ruben Fletcher’s Zombieland, this Zom-Com handles itself quite well. 

3.5 Stars

Parody is a sensitive art, too much and it’s all over. But these filmmakers are careful enough to cover all of their bases - slapstick, gore, drama, a girl-fight - without ever pushing any one motif over the edge. Pertinent to this formula is that it features all the appropriately comedic archetypes. And does it ever!

The Primary Cast:
The Snob/Bridezilla
The Cool Sarcastic Chick
The Big Doof
The Gentle Peacekeeper/Groom-to-be... and Zombie-to-be

The Secondary Cast, to Liven Things Up:
The Gun-Wielding Redneck
The Pretty Scientist

Moreover, we have a cabin in the woods setting. As the foursome heads out of town for one last weekend getaway before the big I Dos, it’s clear that they have all the fixings for fun. In fact, Bridezilla has it all in the itinerary, so what could go wrong? 

Zombie-Infected mosquitos. Yup. That’ll kill the party.. And then bring it back to life, moaning some nonsense that sounds like BRAAAAAIIIIINNNNS.

What’s fresh about this story is the process of “zombiefication”. Despite my lovely pun, the truth is that the mosquitos do not kill, they only infect. So, similar to the experience of the Mother in Dead/Alive, we get to watch Steve (the Gentle Peacekeeper and Groom-to-be) slowly change with very little awareness of what is happening to him. He’s pretty pale, and throws up every time he tries to eat, but the most alarming symptom is definitely the craving for brains. 

Hmm, maybe Bridezilla should not have brought that cute little Bunny to the party…

Lucky for Steve he is surrounded by people who love him and who are willing to put on a pair of hooker boots to trap his dinner: on the menu tonight, drunk biker perv. Mm mm good.

I won’t go so far as to call this film brilliant, but it is quite witty and definitely worth your time if you enjoy parody to any degree. Personally, I’m not a fan of slapstick humor, but this film pulls it off by using it sparingly. With only an 87 minute running time, A Little Bit Zombie does quite a bit narratively. For that, I say it’s a success. Plus, I dig the Army of Darkness reference in the poster.

Oh, stay tuned after the credits for fun post-plot-story pics and find out what became of sweet ol’ Steve.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

How Laurie Strode Makes HALLOWEEN (1978) a Perfect Film

This Final Girl is a tough act to follow

5 Stars


There are a number of reasons to praise Halloween, not the least of which is the eerie idea that a young suburban boy could kill his sister, or that creepy musical score. However, what I will discuss here is how the film creates much of the tension by juxtaposing Laurie Strode and Michael Myers.

Obsessed with the concept of the gaze, this film is constructed entirely around a dialectic of the dangerous male gaze, which belongs to Michael, and the investigative gaze which belongs to the Final Girl, Laurie. 

Significantly, the victims (three girls, and one boy) are caught completely off guard by Michael. It is their inability to anticipate danger that costs them their lives, and the inability to anticipate it has everything to do with lacking the ability to see, or more appropriately to look. Both seeing and not seeing are portrayed as important narrative elements through the use of the facial close-up, used to emphasize these moments of “gazing”.

But there is something special about Laurie’s gaze.

As the babysitter, Laurie well represents the maternal-feminine and the strength that can be associated with that role. It is what most sets her apart from not only from her female peers within the narrative, but other slasher movie survivors. While Laurie does represent Carol Clover’s concept of the victim-hero to some extent, she is markedly different from the typical Final Girl as defined by Clover. Not only is she not-masculine (considered a hallmark of the role), but it is actually by accessing a power specific to traditional ideals of femininity that Laurie learns to fight. 

I have heard people cite Laurie’s use of domestic weapons (sewing needle & hanger) with derision, but I think it’s great. Both her maternal instincts and her mastery of the domestic sphere enhance her ability to see, rationalize, and react to the danger at hand. Her power is therefore bound up in something of a ‘Maternal Gaze’, intrinsically linked to her perspective as a protector and caretaker. It is through the power of this particular gaze that she becomes a heroine.

Although she is unable to defeat Michael, or even save herself (Dr. Sam Loomis will eventually scare him away), it is worth noting that she does save the children, who are above all her first and foremost priority. This concern for the children which is her heroic nature, is far removed from the self-motivated nature of the teens that Michael actually murders.

As Kendall R. Phillips aptly points out, “beyond her overall goodness, Laurie is, perhaps more importantly, the ‘good mother’ in the film”, going on to note what he describes as her “inherent maternal quality”.

Ultimately, it is not only a promise to protect Tommy from the boogeyman, but an instinct to protect her friends as well that finds Laurie in a fighting position. It seems to me that this is where Rob Zombie’s Laurie fell short (although I did enjoy the remake’s new angle).

NEAR DARK (Kathryn Bigelow 1987): A Vampire-Western?!

2.5 Stars (And I know some Bigelow fans will disagree)

There is no question that elements that typify the Vampire Flick have changed throughout the years - these days apparently they sparkle in the sun… And attend high school… 

Wait, are modern Vamp boys David Wooderson incarnate?!

ANYWAYS, Nina Auerbach, a Victorian Lit expert, has argued that while the Vampire story peaked in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a move from thrilling romance to themes of imprisonment; vampirism became a disease, in no small part thanks to public despair over the AIDS epidemic which had ‘dirtied’ the idea of blood transfer.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark brings together this sentiment with Gothic elements and Western themes to create a vampire film that stands alone in its own unnamed category. Despite the originality and beautiful cinematography, I feel the film still falls flat in a number of ways.

While I did not particularly enjoy this one, “objectively” speaking (if that exists) I am willing to say that this film is interesting. In regards to gender there is some clear role-reversal between May the Vampire, and Caleb, the cowboy she turns. While May seems needy and unsure of herself at times, Caleb’s inexperience as a vampire, and with violence in general, means he is forced to depend on her quite heavily. Almost like werewolves, May’s Vampire friends function as a nomad family - a pack (or biker gang). When May unexpectedly inserts Caleb into their dynamic, some are less than inviting.

Furthermore, the violence they are shown indulging in is presented as pleasurable, and freeing, which is very difficult for Caleb to come to terms with.

I guess the film can be described as being about family, for better or for worse. As Caleb learns to function within his new “family”, he also resists his change and resents losing his loved ones. The relationship between May and Caleb is strained but romantic (although coded in dependency), and I find the delivery of this makes the movie drag a bit. It seemed to not be going anywhere, even by the end.

(Spoilers Below)

The return of Caleb’s family is a twist that amps up the action. Just when I thought things couldn’t get stranger, another curveball - there’s a CURE for VAMPIRISM! Uhhhhhh… Ok. 

Once Caleb is “saved” (and yes, there is a definite religious tone to this) he takes it upon himself to save May. This is where the film really lost me. At no point did May express a desire to be “saved”, so I couldn’t understand why Caleb would assume this, let alone why she would go along with it. However, kudos Bigelow, because the scene is quite beautiful with its Frankenstein imagery.

In the spirit of Western genre conventions which emphasize hyper-masculinity, May’s conversion back into a human sets the gender roles in order, so to speak, leaving her vulnerable, afraid, and relying heavily on Caleb’s love and support. 

Roll Credits (And my eyes). I pick Strange Days over this any day!

Friday, 14 March 2014

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010) Drops the Ball!

It's all fun and games until someone messes with a classic!

2.5 stars

Despite remaining loyal to the basic premise of Craven’s story (and in fact relying heavily on his subtext of pedophilia) and recreating some of the staple imageries, Bayer’s Nightmare can only classify as loosely-based on the original. The film is for horror fans, not Nightmare fans. In its appropriation of genre conventions it completely disregards the original’s appreciation of social context and character development. In particular, the close-up is over-utilized to convey a sense of fear among all of the characters. This means that everyone is paranoid, and Nancy’s role becomes far less special. The film slowly but surely removes paranoia from the equation entirely, choosing instead to make the film about the dangers of repression and the trauma associated with childhood victimization. Nancy becomes our main player, not because she is the smartest nor the strongest as in the original, but she is simply the most victimized - she was always Freddy’s favorite. So truly a victim, this Final Girl lacks the power associated with the heroism of Craven’s. 

The first half of the film is presented almost as a series of vignettes, laying out what all the characters are going through. First Dean, and then Kris, and then Jesse. Finally, after this third death, Nancy takes over the plot. She is warned by Jesse of the threat Freddy poses and turns to Quentin for support. While Craven’s film stressed the need for Nancy to develop and trust her own sense of paranoia, this film creates a partnership between Nancy and Quentin, both of whom seem to already have a fully developed and accepted sense of paranoia that they can rationalize with total ease. This has to do with the film’s unexpected insistence on the themes of trauma and repression. The teens are all living with traumatizing repressed memories. When Freddy comes for them, the memories return (obviously, to a further degree for some) enough to alert them to the very real threat they face. Because of this, they need little to no convincing that Freddy is real. They already know, somewhere deep down, that they have to be on guard. Compared to the original, this completely disrupts the dynamic between them. Most significantly, Nancy’s role as the convincer, investigator, and fighter is erased. Furthermore, Bayer’s Nancy is completely dependent on Quentin. She is unable to function, defeat, or even survive without him.

This remake compromises everything that was great about the original - especially Nancy’s character and how her determination never wavered even when all the odds stacked up against her. The CGI’d recreations of shocking, gory imagery from the original loses its effect, and Jackie Earle Haley’s delivery of many of the lines feels unauthentic (which is odd because I loved him in The Watchmen).

Basically, there are some cheap thrills and some creativity in putting together the story but for a true Nightmare fan, this remake really is a nightmare.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

REC (2007): A Must See Zombie Flick from Spain!

As horror fans, we tend to pride ourselves on not getting scared. Maybe we get a rush from sitting through a terrifying movie, and staying outside of it. But that’s no fun! So once in a while I go in telling myself to relax, to get sucked in, to let myself jump. 

I did not do this when I saw REC - it got me all on it’s own.

5 Stars

The film opens on a reporter. She and her cameraman are covering the late shift at a fire station and are anxiously waiting for something exciting to happen. When a distress call is received from an old lady, the team heads over to her building only to find there is complete chaos inside. There is a mysterious outbreak of illness, turning people into rabid, flesh-eating, crazies. As the bodies mount it becomes clear that there is only one thing to do - quarantine. And so begins a very long night.

Showing everything from the cameraman’s lens, this film properly takes advantage of the tension that can be created by creating a claustrophobic space. The handheld cam is shaky when it needs to be, but not overused (ahem, Cloverfield). The limited view keeps the audience alert, because these speedy zombies can be anywhere, and the frustration of not being able to look around will drive you nuts… in a good way. Keep in mind, this film was made the same year as Paranormal Activity but was not released in North America until some time after. So it’s part of the original genius, not the stale trend. Because this is a one-cam film, there is very little noticeable editing and the film is mostly made up of long takes and long shots. And yet, things happen really quickly. It’s incredibly dark, so zombies seem to just pop out of the abyss and run at you full speed. It really is something! The recipe for jump-scares may not be so perfected in any other movie, past or present. 

An American version of the film was released in 2008 by the title Quarantine, but was not given very positive reviews. I have not seen it but have heard from many that it doesn’t have the same effect as REC, despite its complete mimicking. Meanwhile in Spain, REC’s popularity grew as the series continued with a second in 2009, and a third in 2012. The fourth is in the post-production phase and returns to the characters from REC 1 and 2. The third was an interesting divergence form the series as it focused on new characters with an emphasis on black comedy that simply wasn’t in the first two. Nonetheless, it’s a fun ride, and really amps up the Final Girl conventions.

My advice for those who have yet to visit this franchise is that you get on this immediately. And don’t forget to hit the lights!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

THE CRUSH: Introducing Alicia Silverstone as the PSYCHO-LOLITA

If the horror genre has taught us anything it’s that the mind of a genius can be a very scary thing. Pair it with the turbulence of a pubescent girl’s mind and you’ve got trouble.

4.5 stars

When Nick (Cary Elwes) moves into the guest house of a rich family in a quiet upscale town he quickly grabs the attention of the 14 year old daughter, Adrian. She wastes no time letting him see her just the way she wants to be seen, “headstrong” as her mother calls it, “special” as her father calls it, but most importantly, as a desirable young woman. At first, Nick is flattered by her flirtations but by the time he realizes the line between innocence and danger is blurring, it’s too late. Adrian WILL NOT be rejected. Adrian WILL NOT let people get in her way. As a haunting reminder of this she points out to Nick that “accidents happen”. 

So how far will she go to make these “accidents” benefit her? Very.

The pyschological-thriller is a sub-genre of horror that flourished in the 1990s; The Crush (Alan Shapiro 1993) is no exception. It’s a shining example of what you can do when you’re willing to further twist an already uncomfortably twisted tale. I’m referring to the fact the film is heavily indebted to Stanly Kubrick’s 1961 Drama Lolita (based on the 1955 Nabokov novel of the same title). 

Images such as Adrian sun-bathing in front of Nick’s window, or swinging in the backyard are reminiscent of Kubrick's devious little Charlotte Haze, and Humbert’s uncontrolled responses. But Nick is different, his recognition of Adrian as a little girl rarely wavers, and it is this that keeps him grounded. In moments, he sees Adrian, catches himself seeing her, and pulls himself away. His curious attraction to her never blossoms into any kind of obsession. When Adrian’s desperate pursuit of him turns violent he is backed into a corner, knowing there is nothing he can do to prove she is a threat over him. Her own friend warns, “Adrian knows things that other kids don’t know. She even knows about wasps”.

This film is incredibly well put together, so I have no idea why Shapiro has not done more work. The atmosphere is always tense, which keeps the viewers attention even though the action does not pick up until the last 20 minutes or so. The drama is always delivered with suspense, and as the plot unfolds, we get to watch Adrian begin to lose her grip. Slowly she moves from calculatedly devious, to completely psychotic. The culmination of all of this finally comes as a beautiful rendition of the carousel sequence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). 

Even after more than two whole decades, this film is nearly perfect. If it’s aged at all it’s only to have become an example of how much great work came out of the 90s.