31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Hatchet”

 

 

Hack/Slash or Slap/Dash?
Hack/Slash or Slap/Dash?

Sometimes, watching horror movies, you feel quite at odds with your peers.  The UK poster for writer/director Adam Green’s “Hatchet” features rapturous pull quotes which would have you believe that this unashamedly retro slasher flick is quite the big man on campus.

Arriving at a time when Jigsaw ruled supreme and every other fright-flick was feverishly grasping for a slice of the torture and humiliation pie, “Hatchet” must have seemed like a breath of (Gator) fresh air.  Full of old-school stalk-and-slash kills, yet boasting a certain genre self-awareness, this grisly tale of Louisiana mutant maniac Victor Crowley was practically made for the horror festival circuit and to inspire enthusiastic debate amongst forum posters.  Hell, Kane Hodder’s front and centre as the movie’s anti-heroic slasher – how much more cred with the grue ‘n’ gore crowd do you need?

The film sees a mismatched band of New Orleans tourists heading out to the bayou on a haunted swamp tour boat and expecting to see nothing more than swamp gas, the odd reptilian river dweller and hear a spectral yarn or two from shyster tour guide Shawn (Parry Shen).  Chief amongst these tourists are nerdy college kid Ben (Joel David Moore), his utterly sceptical best friend Marcus (Deion Richmond) and mysterious local gal MaryBeth (Tamara Feldman).  When their boat breaks down and begins to sink, the tourists soon come under attack from both the swamp’s many-toothed gators and Mr Crowley himself, whose tolerance for visitors is non-existent.

Where this movie succeeds is in building a convincing back story for Crowley and in ensuring that we know just enough about the tourists before Victor’s blade begins to bite.  As well as our core trio, the film sees cameos from horror icons like Tony Todd (the charmingly disreputable Reverend Zombie) and Robert Englund (who doesn’t make it past the opening credits) and even finds room for Mercedes McNab, otherwise known as Harmony in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, who forms a winning comic partnership with Joleigh Fioravanti.  as bickering actress wannabes doffing their tops for a sleazy videographer promising fame in a regionally-themed “Girls Gone Wild” rip-off.

The major issue that I do have with “Hatchet” is that whilst it certainly passes the time quite agreeably and shows a pleasing commitment to delivering old-school horror with delightfully gross practical gore effects, it never exactly lives up to the advance billing of being a game-changing fright fest.

Rather, Adam Green’s film is, at heart, an unapologetic slasher homage and doesn’t seem to be too hung up about providing meta commentary of the “Scream”/”Cabin in the Woods” variety.  Judging it on it’s own merits, it’s a slightly rough-around-the-edges, speedy horror movie which delivers on the kill front, has the seemingly prerequisite number of topless young women, has a decent Final Girl in the form of MaryBeth and even delivers my favourite staple of the 70’s/80’s horror film, the cyclical nightmare ending.

That said, it really doesn’t offer anything new and the advance claims of Green doing something different are hard to reconcile with the enjoyable but scarcely revolutionary film he’s directed.  In comparison to the torture-driven fare on offer at the time, “Hatchet” is preferable experience in that you don’t want to have your memory scrubbed of what you’ve just watched.

More fun than an axe in the head, but not the best horror movie that I’ve watched this October.

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Scream 4”

 

New decade, old school?
New decade, old school?

What’s your favourite scary movie?

2011’s “Scream 4” revived everybody’s favourite post-modern slasher, Ghostface, after a decade’s absence, pitting the raspy-voiced, horror movie trivia-obsessed maniac against an entirely new horror – the Twitter generation.

Beginning with a dizzying series of movies-within-movies, as we find out that the faux “Stab” franchise is up to entry number seven, “Scream 4” follows series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) back to Woodsboro on the fifteenth anniversary of the killings to promote her new book.

As inevitably as night following day, Sidney’s appearance encourages a new crazed slasher to take up the cloak and Ghostface mask, putting a younger, wiser and equally doomed generations of teens to the knife.  Only Sidney, Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and a writers-blocked Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) can discover the identity of the new killer before he gets his black-clad hands on Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts).

 

 

A lot of people really hated the third movie – I wasn’t amongst them at the time (Jay and Silent Bob FTW), but it has been a hell of a long time since I’ve seen it. The reviews of this film put me off seeing it back in 2011, and only the prospect of taking on this Halloween movie challenge made me take a chance on it.  And, you know, I’m mostly glad that I did.

The sense of fun and arcane nerdery employed by Craven and Williamson in the original trilogy is still evident here,despite the dread hands of “Transformers” scribe Ehren Kruger being on the shooting script.  The kaleidoscopic opening sequence pulls the proverbial rug from under the audience’s feet multiple times, showing confidence in said crowd’s ability to determine flashbacks-within-flashbacks (we even find out that the fifth(?) movie featured time travel!).

It’s intriguing that the movie doesn’t comment too much on recent genre tropes beyond an aside about Asian ghost girls and torture porn – in an age of found-footage, possession and zombie flicks, we get precious little acknowledgement of how the horror movie has altered since the last movie opened.  Okay, the main plot features a character who streams every moment of his daily life via a head-mounted camera and mic, but that’s about the extent of things (well, until the ending, but I won’t spoil that).

The non-supernatural slasher does seem rather quaint in an era where Blumhouse flicks are tearing up the box office and you’re more likely to see 19,000 identikit demonic possession potboilers in Netflix’s horror section than an axe-wielding maniac chasing plastic teens around the woods.  But, to his credit, Craven is a master of staging and elegantly crafts several set-pieces which are the equal of the party scene from the first movie or the cinema opening of the first sequel.

This picture is utterly crucial to a discussion of the film.  Or something.
This picture is utterly crucial to a discussion of the film. Or something.

Campbell, Arquette and Cox are as good as you would hope them to be, and new cast members like Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts and – sigh – Alison Brie do good work in supporting roles.  If I have a problem with the film, the ultimate motivation of the new Ghostface killer seemed a little opaque, as for it to work, it indicates a rather epic level of cynicism about modern society and the blurring line between news coverage and scripted entertainment.  Cynicism which may be well-earned in this era of indistinguishable reality tv shows and the popularity of people who seem to do nothing more complicated than breathe oxygen on a regular basis.

I suppose that it’s quite plausible in the meta-hothouse reality of these movies, but the planning and – no pun intended – execution required to carry out the murders in the film suggests that the killers would be better remunerated writing these kinds of movies rather than taking out half of the graduating class of 2011.  Indeed, the staging of a climactic crime scene and actions carried out by the murderer stretch plausibility beyond credulity somewhat – it’s like some awesome hybrid of Sam Raimi violence, Looney Tunes and performance art.  Points for style, but the level of diabolical genius at play suggests a mind so twisted and brilliant that it makes Hannibal Lecter look like a Kardishian in comparison.

One last thing, if I may?  How come people don’t seem to have guns in Woodsboro?  Of all the places that one might expect to find surburban families packing heat, this blighted community would be it.  Oh, the possibilities of Ghostface bringing a knife to a shotgun fight…

Certainly worth a look if you like the previous films – if they left you cold and you found their layered pop cultural snark aesthetic utterly wearing, then avoid this movie as the clever-cleverness within might cause your head to explode, Tom Savini in “Maniac”-style.

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Tucker & Dale Vs Evil”

Eat chainsaw death, college boy!
Eat chainsaw death, college boy!

 

The marriage of horror and comedy is fraught with danger.  Get it right and you get “Evil Dead 2”, “Shaun of the Dead” or “An American Werewolf in London”.  Get it wrong and you have a “Scary Movie”, “Lesbian Vampire Killers” or “An American Werewolf in Paris” on your hands.

Thankfully, Eli Craig’s “Tucker & Dale Vs Evil” is very much of the former camp.

Set in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, the film pits hard-working, blue-collar Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) against an increasingly paranoid band of holidaying college kids who’ve gotten the idea that the two local boys are actually creepy psychos with designs on snuffing them out.

Tucker and Dale’s best efforts to make peace with the group are undone when Dale accidentally causes Alison (Katrina Bowden) to bang her head whilst skinny dipping.  Dale’s rescue is misinterpreted by the kids as a kidnap and things get progressively bloodier, blackly comedic and deliriously absurd from then on with the guys’ simple desire to fix up Tucker’s dilapidated vacation home being thwarted by disposable teens flinging themselves at the putative backwoods murderers before they meet bloody ends courtesy of  the axe-handed hillbillies.

If you think of this movie as a slasher movie for people who can’t stand the sub-genre, you wouldn’t be far wrong.  The film’s primary conceit is that the characters who would normally be depicted as the antagonists in a “Friday the 13th” sequel – the conspirational, untrustworthy rednecks – are the heroes whose naivety and unwordly nature contrive to give them the appearance of grisly serial killers.

It’s hard not to think that Jason Voorhees and Victor Crowley (of the “Hatchet” series) would have done better to adopt a similar approach and allow the drunk, dope-smoking, pre-marital sex-having teens of their respective series to behave with such forehead-slapping stupidity and hasten their own demises.  Crystal Lake’s favourite son could put his mask up, chill out in a lounger and never have to unsheath his machete again.

Performances are universally wonderful, with Tudyk and Labine endearingly hilarious as guys utterly bewildered by what fate is flinging at them – it’s a treat to see these perenial supporting players given the chance to lead a film and the college kids are equally fun.  “30 Rock” siren Katrina Bowden gets to do more than totter around in tiny outfits for a change and Jesse Moss makes for a splendidly hateful antagonist in Chad, the frat bro with a dark family secret he’s not aware of.

My horror-averse wife enjoyed this film tremendously, despite the free-flowing gore and dismemberment on display, which may give those of you with scare-phobic spouses another film to add to your Halloween movie countdown.  It’s certainly worth your time.

 

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: “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 – “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.