31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “(Rec)”

Nightmarishly gruelling terror, Spanish-style...
Nightmarishly gruelling terror, Spanish-style…

 

If I’ve learned one thing from participating in this 31 Days of Horror blog challenge, it’s that non-Hollywood film offers the best chill for your buck.

The studios have the cash, but the indie and international films have mastered the fine art of using their limitations creatively to scare the living pants off you – witness Spain’s (Rec) from 2007.

 

 

As directed by Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza, “(Rec)” relates the story of Angela (Manuela Velasco), a local TV presenter in Barcelona fronting the show “While You’re Asleep”.  Angela’s beat is to follow people who work whilst the wider world slumbers and on this night, she’s shadowing guys from the local fire station.  She’s convinced that she’s in for a dull show until a call comes in from an apartment building.

It's all smiles until a viral zombie outbreak ruins your day...
It’s all smiles until a viral zombie outbreak ruins your day…

 

The crew are called to rescue a confused elderly woman locked in her apartment.  On closer inspection she’s covered in blood and a wee bit bitey.  Angela and her long-suffering cameraman Pablo capture everything as the elderly woman attacks the firemen, mortally wounding their supervisor.  From that point, the fit really hits the shan as the local police and military seal off the building, trapping the remaining tenants inside with an increasing complement of feral, meat-crazed, virally-created predators.  The survivors numbers drop by the minute until only Angela and Pablo are left to document the horror, culminating in a visit to the mysteriously locked and sealed-off apartment at the top of the building.

It is here in the last twenty minutes of the film that Balaguero and Plaza really get their hooks into you, with the found footage conceit working at its peak effectiveness and Velasco’s embodiment of abject terror being totally convincing. The combination of performance, staging, cinematography and direction conspire to utterly grip and even scare the viewer – the first time in this 31 Days of Halloween Hysteria that I’ve actually been on the edge of my seat and frightened by the film.

That “(Rec)” is a scant 75 minutes in length is also of note –  it makes you wonder why more directors don’t just get in, scare the bejesus out of their audiences and then drop the mic in triumph.

Two follow-ups have been released to date, with a fourth due imminently – the parallel sequel “(Rec 2)”, hybrid prequel/sequel “(Rec 3: Genesis)” and final instalment “(Rec 4: Apocalypse)”.  Two American films remade the franchise for subtitle-averse audiences in the form of “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal”.  Whilst it would be foolish to judge a film without seeing it, the fact that the cover art for the US remake appears to give away the very last moments of the movie doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.

Still, “(Rec)” is a cracking horror movie on it’s own and I’m going to continue to watch the rest of the series with great interest to see how this refreshingly scary take on the zombie genre develops.

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “See No Evil”

Oh, for the sweet release of death...
Not the kind of hooker these kids expected to meet…

Slasher movies are supposed to be fun, aren’t they?  Moderately transgressive teens getting not entirely justified punishment for comparitively minor infractions to underscore Western cultural and moral norms – that’s what we’re watching these movies for, much to the chagrin of film critics and self-appointed moral crusaders.  What to do, then, with a film like 2006’s “See No Evil”, which is about as much fun as a hook in the unmentionables?

One of the first features to bear the WWE films banner, “See No Evil” attempts to create a new multiplex maniac in the form of Jacob Goodnight, a seven-foot tall hack-and-slashologist driven doolally by a childhood of artily-staged and grisly religious oppression by Mommy Dearest.  Goodnight’s ocularly-fixated rampage is abruptly curtailed by a heroic cop, Williams (Steven Vidler), who gets his man but loses an arm in the process.

Cut to several years later and Williams is now heading up a work-release programme for at risk juvenile detainees, who are tasked with cleaning up a dingy rundown hotel in exchange for a month-long reduction on their sentences.  In an example of remarkable optimism about human nature, the group is comprised of overheated teens of all persuasions who can’t go a second without sparking up a joint, punching each other’s lights out or attempting to have the kind of unprotected pre-maritals which are as music to the ears of  the hotel’s special guest, our axe and hook-handed friend, Jacob.

So far, so slashy-slashy.  But there’s a problem.  And, it’s a doozy.

Most of these kids are unlikeable ass-hats.  There are perhaps two characters in the ensemble who wouldn’t benefit from one of Jacob’s signature kills, the forcible eye-removal via pointy finger gambit, and at least one of those is amongst the first of the group to be gorily smacked-down.  We’re left with a group of kids who are so venally stupid as to present a threat to the human gene pool if they survive their night in Jacob’s run-down lair.   However, arguably the worst offender therein, Mike the misogynist pimp wannabe, somehow makes it to the end credits somewhat unscathed.  What gives?

I can only assume that auteur Gregory Dark (he of the NSFW filmography – Google at your peril) is making some kind of point about society in that the cruellest and most unscrupulous amongst us prosper at the expense of nice mousy girls who are kind to stray dogs.  I’d like to think that, but I’m pretty certain that no such subtext is to be found amidst the eye trauma, omnipresent grime and obnoxiously in your face sound design.

Everything culminates in some much-needed and slightly too late character development for Jacob Goodnight, which allows Glenn Jacobs to demonstrate that he has some acting ability, just in time for that time-wasting stuff to be jettisoned for some more chasing around crawlspaces, lift-shafts and the inevitable besting of the Big Bad.  A defeat which, to this viewer, seemed so completely splattery that it precluded any further outings for the sin-punishing psycho.

Inevitably, I’m way off base as the Soska Sisters-directed sequel is due for release on VOD and DVD/Blu-Ray later this month:

 

Evidently, you can’t keep a good (or slicing and dicing) man down.  But, two of the pre-eminent Final Girls in horror cinema in the same movie, the Twisted Soska Sisters calling the shots and his Kane-ness sporting a wrassling-style mask for a new bout of gutting and glowering?  There’s always the possibility that the sequel improves on the original, isn’t there?

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “The Dead”

I walked with a zombie...
I walked with a zombie…

“The Dead” is a low-key, African-set zombie horror character study.  How many of those have you seen recently?

Directed by the Ford Brothers in 2010, the film follows Murphy (Rob Freeman) and Dembele (Prince David Oseia) as they grapple with the mundane realities of surviving an implacable, tireless and omnipresent plague of the undead.  I’m not exaggerating when I state the scope of the threat.  Though this is clearly a film with a low budget, the focus is very much on the shuffling hordes of intestine-munching horrors who are rarely far away from our protagonists, just waiting for them to get tired and stop long enough to be devoured.

Murphy is an American private military contractor whose flight out of the hot zone crashes.  Finding himself washed up on a beach, he scrabbles to find weapons to protect himself, transportation and supplies to keep himself alive.  After encountering soldier Dembele who saves him from certain death when his car gets stuck, the two men travel across hostile country to get to an airfield where engineer Murphy hopes that he can find a plane and repair it – Dembele just wants to keep the car so that he can search for his young son.

It’s this matter-of-fact treatment which makes the film worth watching – the threat is constant, the dangers are as much from the environment and simple mechanical failures as anything more high concept or based in contrivance and the acting is refreshingly unhistrionic.  When was the last time that you saw a zombie horror film where the simple act of finding clean drinking water was a source of triumph?

 

If you want your zombie tales to be slick and propulsive, you might want to skip this, but I found it a refreshing change of pace from the usual ‘set-em-up, knock-em-down’ school of horror movies which followed Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake.  It’s a beautifully-shot and oddly thoughtful tale of survival against impossible odds.

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Planet Terror”

You win some, you lose some.

Letting Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez follow their film geek muse by making a double-feature homage to trashy Z-grade movies must have seemed like a can’t miss proposition back in 2007.

Naturally, Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s decision to let the directorial pairing’s collective id run unchecked was one of the more pricey follies of that year, as the film radically unperformed at the box office and was met with a collective shrug by film critics.

How can a film this OTT be so dull?
How can a film this OTT be so dull?

Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is the section with the most relevance to this Halloween Horror blog, being largely concerned with hideous mutations running amok, zombie shenanigans, characters having their unmentionables hacked off and all manner of juvenile stuff guaranteed to make you wonder if the director is, in actual fact, an honest-to-goodness teenage boy stuck in the body of a middle-aged man.  If that makes you think of the movie “Big”, I’m right there with you, but dread to think just what Robert Rodriguez would make with that premise.

Beginning with the director’s then-muse Rose McGowan essaying the difference between go-go dancing and striptease in a scuzzy Texan club, there’s certainly enough South-Western guitar slinging and surface style to initially grab the attention.  Attention which is then held by a grotesque face-off between testicle-hoarding scumbag Naveen Andrews and mutant psycho military type Bruce Willlis and the introduction of martial strife between Marley Shelton’s anethetist and her doctor husband Josh Brolin.

We have a lot of plotlines colliding before we even get into the travailles of trucker hero Freddy Rodriguez, vaguely crooked local sheriff Michael Biehn and rib-joint proprietor Jeff Fahey and that’s kind of the problem with “Planet Terror”.

There’s way too much going on.  It’s a film permanently on eleven, with barely a grasp of how to structure the chaotic action, gore, girls and meta-commentary on exploitation cinema into something coherant.  The net effect of watching this film is like having an energy drink-addled friend explain the plots of their favourite VHS-era horror flicks and realising that one man’s gloopy monster fun is another’s shrill, tone-deaf mess.

The cast gives it their best, with Marley Shelton probably better than the movie deserves and the inevitable Tarantino cameo being mercifully short and commitedly gross, but you do wonder how the likes of Willis felt about having their names linked to a movie which boasts more close-ups of diseased body parts and pus-filled God-only-knows-what than can be found on the internet forum of your nightmares.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll be clued into the fact that I really didn’t care for this movie – it’s a one-note in-joke of a film which possibly plays better for you if you’re as in thrall to no-budget exploitation fare as Tarantino and Rodriguez clearly are.  If you regard Z-grade schlock as fun but not the kind of stuff that you want to spend $60 million smackers to emulate, your mileage may vary.

It’s a big old shoulder-shrugging, bemusing ‘Huh?’ of a movie.  How can a movie featuring a heroine with an M16 for a leg be as dull as this film was is anybody’s guess…

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Blade Trinity”

Alas, poor Blade - we hardly knew ye...
Alas, poor Blade – we hardly knew ye…

To sum up “Blade Trinity” (2004) in a pithy phrase? Oy vey.  This film is proof that the third time ain’t the charm.

It’s a shame, really, as the first two movies in the series were excellent slices of energetic, horror-inflected action mayhem, quite distinct from the other comic-book adaptations in cinemas at the time.

So, what went wrong with the third movie?  “Blade Trinity” co-star Patton Oswalt might help illuminate things:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8rCtzKA9tQ

The third movie pits the hybrid human/vampire Blade against Drake (Dominic Purcell), the big kahuna of bloodsuckers and human law enforcement, who are finally aware of the existence of vampires when a reckless Blade is framed in the murder of a vampire’s human familiar.  No pun intended, but the stakes are upped appropriately.

As with many sequels, we get new characters in the form of younger vampire slayers Abigail Whistler and Hannibal King, in an attempt to set-up a spin-off which never arrived (It’s of note that this film pre-dates the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by quite some way).  As the way with brash youngsters,  they clash with Blade’s stern paternal figure by utilising the twin lethal weapons of industrial snark and carefully-curated iTunes playlists.

 

The Scooby Gang could take 'em in a second...
The Scooby Gang could take ’em in a second…

The most obvious issue – Mr Snipes’ alleged on-set antics aside – is with the execution of the film.  Writer and director David Goyer’s script makes the crucial mistake of having too much of the story focus on King and Whistler’s Nightstalker cell.  There’s something wrong when the titular character is a guest star in his own movie, especially as the usually likeable Biel and Reynolds are working with archetypes rather than fully-fleshed out characters.

I cringed particularly during a sequence where the principals shake down vampire cells in a montage which recalls bad 70’s cop shows – it’s an utterly misjudged sequence, right down to the none-more-dated use of split-screen.

Purcell’s Drake is a fairly poor antagonist, too, and entirely unthreatening.  He’s more mildly disgruntled regional manager of his vampiric coterie than terrifying Lord of the Night, and eventually dispatched with an ease which belies his status.  He’s less Vlad the bad-ass impaler than Drake, the chest-baring Jersey Shore reject.

Nobody’s heart seemed in this film, save for a scene-stealing Parker Posey as Danica Talos, the vampire who decides to unearth Drake from his Syrian resting place and formerly enslaved Reynolds’ King.   She’s a hoot as a snit-throwing, fashionista bloodsucker who evidently saw the writing on the wall and decided to play the whole thing for chuckles. Posey is, almost certainly, far better than the movie she was cast in.

Now that the rights to the Blade character are back with Marvel Studios, it would be intriguing to see if they re-purpose the street-stalking day walker as a prime candidate for one of their Netflix series (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones being the first characters to get their shot on the small screen).  It’s certainly got to be a better use of the character than this film was.

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria – “Jason X”

Sci-Fi terror, Canuck-style...
Sci-Fi terror, Canuck-style…

Directed by the late Jim Isaac, 2001’s  “Jason X” is a widely reviled entry in the ongoing canon of Voorhees-centric slasher movies.  And I re-watched it, so that you don’t have to.

Actually, that’s unfair – I do have a soft spot for flicks which blend sci-fi and horror and “Jason X” performs that task unquestionably.  Whether it constitutes a decent horror movie is another issue, as one element that you might reasonably expect from an entry in the “Friday the 13th” saga is for the odd jump scare or suspenseful stalk-and-slash sequence to scare the wiggins out of you.  And, regrettably, your correspondent must inform you that this is the least scary horror movie that I’ve watched in quite some years.

Perhaps that has something to do with the future setting – there’s something about the unholy mash-up of sci-fi vehicles, habitats and technology depicted which robs the film of genuine scares.  As many of the cast are wholly disposable military grunts in the vein of “Aliens” or “Halo”, there’s very little sense of danger, as we know that no amount of heavy weaponry will put a dent in Camp Crystal Lake’s most horrific native.  And we also know that Jason’s modus operandi is to despatch the cast one by one until a final girl (or boy) is left alive to lure Jason to his climactic doom.

That final girl, this time around, is also a first girl – the film begins with scientist Rowan (Lexa Doig) whose attempt to put Jason into cryogenic deep freeze is rudely undone by a military/scientific team led by a cameoing David Cronenberg, who wishes to experiment on Jason to see what makes him tick.  With an inevitability that sustains this evergreen horror franchise, Rowan manages to trap Jason in cryo at the expense of her own life as she’s put on ice with the machete-wielding maniac.

Jump forward to the year 2455.  Earth is toast and science students are on a field trip to the decaying husk.  They salvage the cryo tank and the on-ice due of Rowan and Jason.  As in any B-movie of note, a decision is made to study the pair, which leads to another go-round of hide-and-go-kill, only this time in space.

At a refreshingly brisk 92 minutes, “Jason X” delivers the goods in terms of body count – 21 actual people, one virtual reality alien, two VR campers, the assorted crew and personnel of a space station – whilst cleverly side-stepping the idea of continuity by being set far in the future.

In terms of performances, Lexa Doig and Lisa Ryder (at the time, both actresses were cast in the syndicated “Andromeda” tv sci-fi series) make the biggest mark, with Ryder’s turn as cyborg Kay-Em 14 being particularly charming.  It’s the latter character who – for a little while, at least – gets to put the wrassling-style smack-down on Mr Voorhees once she’s upgraded by her maker/lover Tsunaron.

Ultimately, the issue with “Jason X” is that whilst it diverts and entertains for the majority of it’s running time, it never really surprises, with the conventional beats being hit on cue and the outcome never really being in doubt.  Of course, at this point, a viewer of the “Friday the 13th” series knows essentially what they’re getting and it would be an unwise film-maker who tries to subvert the expectations of the horror hardcore.

The biggest issue is the total lack of scares in the film.  There’s gore galore and the usual stalk-and-slash mechanics are well in evidence, but the film doesn’t really want to make you jump out of your seat.  There’s no sense of dread here – it’s almost a film that you could watch with the family, were it not for the frequent displays of eye-rollingly mandatory T&A and salty dialogue.

If you’ve not seen this entry in the series, it’s certainly worth a look, so long as you don’t expect it to reinvent the language of cinematic terror.  For that, we might have to look to look to the in-development reboot by revamp specialists Platinum Dunes.  I’m expecting some kind of found-footage effort, but we shall see whether the current tropes of horror are enough to give this old slasher a jump-start.

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria – “30 Days of Night”

Out for a night bite...
Out for a night bite…

So, Halloween, eh?  The season of pumpkin-flavoured everything and dubious costumes returns anew and gives me ample excuse to watch a month-long festival of fright-based flicks on your behalf.

Everybody wins, I guess?  Except for Mrs Rolling Eyeballs, that is, who doesn’t do horror, despite being an avid viewer of “Grimm”, “Fringe” and other telefantasy shows which dabble in things that go bump in the midnight hour.

Our first example of horrific entertainment this October is “30 Days of Night” (2007), adapted from Steve Niles’ grisly comic.  It concerns a plague of feral, ancient vampires laying siege to the snowy, isolated Alaskan town of Barrow, where the sun never rises for the titular period each year.

“30 Days” is a classic, almost Western-like tale of law-enforcement folk and assorted survivors joining forces to ward off evil whilst struggling to prevent internal discord from letting the bad guys in.  Josh Hartnett stars as fresh-faced sheriff Eben Oleson whilst Danny Huston plays the alpha bloodsucker Marlow, whose ferocity is only matched by his intelligence.

These are not your romantic vampires of the Lestat/Edward Cullen school – they’re more akin to vicious apex predators, using the geography of the town to hunt, grab prey and then return to the shadows to feed.  Equally, the accepted touchstones of fiction are almost wholly ineffective – wooden stakes don’t work, garlic is a bust and even dismemberment provides only temporary respite from the fangs of the un-dead.

As the film draws to a climax, it seems that there’s little which can stop Marlow’s powerful horde from doing their grisly work unless the survivors are prepared to make an ultimate sacrifice to prevent the spread of this virulent vampiric cabal.

Director David Slade’s film is at it’s best when it shows the hopelessness besetting Barrow’s townsfolk – there’s a wonderful overhead shot from the air which follows the vampires cutting a bloody swathe through main street and overrunning the unprepared civilians.  It’s an operatic moment which is never quite matched by the rest of the movie, which is more contained and content to focus in on the cabin fever which besets the ever-dwindling populace as the month draws on.

That’s not to say that it’s bad – rather that this is a horror movie with most of the sharp edges left on:  Heroism goes unrewarded and a happy ending is conspicuous by it’s absence.

The best performances come from the dark side of course – Danny Huston is a fantastic antagonist, giving Marlow an aristocratic, old-world air, as though this vampire has lived for centuries and spilt more blood than he knows what to do with.  He is matched on the creep scale by Ben Foster, wholly memorable as the mysterious newcomer to Barrow whose arrival is a cue for very bad things to start happening.

If your October fancy is for night-crawlers and be-fanged horrors of the darkest kind, the pervasive dread and desperation of “30 Days of Night” is hard not to recommend.