Horror Hysteria: “Rec 3: Genesis”

With a poster this awesome, do you actually need a movie?
With a poster this awesome, do you actually need a movie?

The Spanish “REC” series of zombie movies is one which I clutch dearly to my (mostly) undead heart.  The first two entries in the franchise related the frantically-paced tale of a mysterious viral outbreak in a Barcelona apartment building.  Shot in an immediate, first-person style which plunges the viewer directly into the nightmarishly unfolding action, the films tapped into the storytelling techniques familiar to a generation raised on reality TV and “Call of Duty“-style shooters whilst weaving a background tapestry of governmental collusion, demonic possession and societal mistrust.

The third movie doesn’t quite follow this template, which some fans may count as an unforgivable betrayal.  In “REC 3: Genesis”, we find ourselves watching highlights of Koldo and Clara’s wedding day as it unfolds, meeting the bride (who has a secret…), the groom and their respective families and friends as they gather at the church and the reception afterwards.   The first heads-up that things are going “REC” comes when a guest appears to have suffered a dog bite…

 

Ruh Roh

 

Before you can say “Colega, ¿dónde está mi motosierra?”, the recently undead are running amok, chowing down on second cousins and forcing apart Clare and Koldo on the happiest day of their lives.  It’s at this point that the film jettisons any pretence at found footage with a meta-joke about people who keep recording in the midst of a disaster instead of just running for their lives.  The film swaps to a traditional 2:35:1 aspect ratio at this point, giving long-suffering Horror aesthetes like your humble blogger the chance to enjoy the zombie-riffic carnage in a more cinematic style than hand-held video permits.

And this may be the problem for a lot of fans of the series.  In acknowledging the tenets of traditional narrative cinema, the immediacy is lost and you’re watching just a.n. other horror movie, rather than going into the grisly heart of the action as in previous franchise entries. That would be fine if the film was a nerve-shredding exercise in suspense and white-knuckle terror, but this third entry in the series is closer to “Zombieland” than “Zombie Flesh Eaters”.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with that, but your mileage may vary if you fear the dread spectre of mainstream norms gatecrashing our undead party.

The focus is on situational chuckles rather than survival horror, save for the last ten minutes of the film which take a sojourn into more serious territory.  The performances scale upwards accordingly and if you went into the third movie expecting the vivid terrors of the first two entries, this film’s exaggerated caricatures and more sentimental overtures might well stick in the craw like so much undigested flesh.

 

The Spanish Chainsaw Massacre

 

I really enjoyed this film and was punching the air by the time that Clara (Leticia Dolera) was slashing her wedding dress up with a chainsaw to make easier work of dispatching ghouls.   That it doesn’t have the relentless drive and manic shocks of the first film proved to me that “REC 3” was happy to take a different path and not just repeat the riffs of its predecessors.  Isn’t that a good thing?  Finding some narrative hook to justify a team of survivors documenting their path through an undead uprising rather suggests that the established filming conventions are more important than the story – surely not the right message to send when, as audiences, we complain about studios and film-makers being content to fall back on the same old tropes?

At a scant 80 minutes, it doesn’t wear out it’s welcome and is at least trying to do something different – I’ve can’t recall the last time I saw a ravenous horde of flesh-munchers stopped in their shuffling tracks by a priest reciting Bible verse over the hotel P.A. system…

 

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31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Cold Prey”

 

After the relatively dull and by-the-numbers fare of “See No Evil”, today’s movie “Cold Prey” came as a welcome surprise.

Though constructed from the classic slasher playbook – a gaggle of young people, an implacable killer with identity obscured, a compact locale – “Cold Prey” (or “Fritt Vilt”, in its original Norwegian) is a refreshingly direct and well-made horror thriller which uses locations to great effect and often wrong-foots even the most experienced scary movie fan by making smart choices and allowing the characters to act plausibly and consistently.

The plot is simplicity itself – five young snowboarders hike out into the Norwegian wilds to rip up the pure white powders of an unspoiled peak and find themselves out of their depths when injury forces them to take refuge in an isolated, apparently deserted hotel.  As this is a horror picture, the hotel is anything but isolated and has an unwelcome member of staff not best pleased by the peppy quintet’s sudden trespass.

So, not that dissimilar to “See No Evil”, then?  If you’ll forgive the pun, it’s all in the execution.  Whereas that film tried to make us care about a largely hateful group of teen axe-fodder, “Cold Prey” dares to spend a good half-hour establishing character and relationships before putting the cast in death’s clammy grasp so that we give a hoot about the group when our masked menace starts to thin the herd.

Of chief note is heroine Jannicke (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) who is quite the most resourceful heroine that I’ve seen in my horror film viewing this week.  Without being a magazine-swapping, neck-snapping femme assassin par excellence, she takes charge of an increasingly insane situation and courageously marshals her friends in an effort to keep them away from an abrupt, icy demise.

Director Roar Uthaug’s film is successful in that it doesn’t waste time or insult your intelligence.  The gore is restrained – perhaps too much if you judge a fright flick on the number of exploding heads featured within – and the thrills are well-judged and expertly-staged.  The plot more or less makes sense (bar rather opaque motivations on the behalf of the film’s slasher) and the whole affair is rounded up in a compact 97 minutes.

You may see better horror movies this Halloween, but if you have any love for the stalk-and-slash sub-genre, you’ll find it hard to find a recent effort which betters “Cold Prey” in it’s command of the essentials

 

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 – “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.