31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Waxwork”

It's a hell of a show...
It’s a hell of a show…

 

There’s nothing like a film studio logo to give any self-respecting nerd an attack of nostalgia.  Witness the 1988 monster movie mash-up, “Waxwork”.   I had only to see the Vestron Pictures logo at the beginning of the movie to be transported to a more innocent age of plastic clamshell VHS  boxes, video recorder tracking wheels and low-budget scare-fests with artwork that promised more epic terror than a poverty row budget could ever deliver.  Yes, streaming is convenient, but there’s no sense of occasion in scrolling through fuzzy cover art on your smartphone screen and then watching a film.

It’s not the movies that got small – it’s the screens.  But, I digress..

Yep, those are some 80's teens alright...
Yep, those are some 80’s teens alright…

 

The film sees a gaggle of upscale, freshly scrubbed college kids taking an ill-advised midnight tour of a new waxwork attraction which has just popped up in suburbia, as if by (spooky laugh) evil magic.  Pausing only to be spooked by in-no-way nefarious proprietor David Warner on the way in, the likes of Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman and Dana Ashbrook find their perfectly maintained 80’s hairdos well and truly messed up when they stray too far into the wax exhibits and zip through a portal into their own, personal horror movies.

If you came of age with the Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja era of horror cinema, there’s a very good chance that “Waxwork” will seem like so much fine fromage:   it boasts practical effects and matte paintings, goofy synthesised scoring and many scenes apparently shot in somebody’s very swish mansion, not to mention a climax which sees Steed himself, the glorious Patrick Macnee, having at the bad guys whilst strapped into what can only be described as a battle chariot-come-wheelchair.

Visceral, transgressive, hackles-raising terror this isn’t.  Cheery B-movie fun it definitely is.

David Warner is a splendidly hissable bad guy but he’s not really a dominant menace as he only pops up periodically to put his diabolical plan into action – the majority of the scaring and teen menacing is done by a right old cornucopia of thesps including John Rhys Davies, Miles O’ Keefe and J. Kenneth Campbell (essaying well-known fictional horror movie staple, the Marquis De Sade).  It’s this film within the film structure which really hit the spot for me – I was particularly taken by the black-and-white segment which pits hero Zach Galligan against a graveyard full of recently arisen zombies as it demonstrates amply that Hickox’s film is a love letter to classic horror.  Indeed, the director gives props to the likes of Argento, Romero, Carpenter and Hammer in the closing credits.

What better way to round out this month of cinematic terrors than to take in a film which celebrates the genre in such a fun fashion?  I can’t imagine anybody but the most woolly of wusses being scared by “Waxwork”, but it’s sheer joy in genre is infectious – it’s the sort of film which makes you want to watch more fright flicks after seeing it.  And what better film to watch on the night that the dead walk and spectres…spectate?

Have a Happy Halloween, Boils and Ghouls!

 

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: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

Black Friday 2014
Black Friday 2014

2004 saw two contemporary zombie movies released which owed a great debt to George A. Romero’s pioneering trilogy of undead horrors.  This is the other one.

Whilst “Shaun of the Dead” won over audiences across the globe with it’s witty take on a zombie apocalypse in suburban London, Zack Snyder’s directorial debut “Dawn of the Dead” is now more a footnote to his career as an A-list director of “300”, “Watchmen”, “Sucker Punch”, “Man of Steel” and the 19 DC Comics adaptations he’s currently linked to.

Snyder’s movie sets out its stall from the get-go with nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) having a crap day at work before the world as she knows it ends.  After surviving an attack by her freshly zombiefied husband, Ana barely escapes an apocalyptic sub-division in her car before being run off the road and careening into a tree.  All this mayhem occurs before the titles kick in with a perfectly chosen Johnny Cash song  soundtracking  the end times.

Finding fellow survivors and temporary respite from the undead in a shopping mall, Ana’s group find themselves imprisoned when the Mall’s rent-a-cops start playing God and enforcing  compliance from behind a pistol.  The power struggle continues throughout the rest of the movie, with a makeshift society within the mall constantly threatened by infected newcomers and the surging horde outside.

Whereas Romero uses action in his movies, it clearly isn’t his focus.  Snyder, by contrast, is all in.  This is at least as much an edge-of-the-seat action movie as a horror film, with the scale of the set pieces elevated in accordance with the vastly increased, studio-backed budget of this version.

Snyder’s zombies are not the shuffling, tireless ghouls of Romero’s version but are sprinting, feral, and utterly lethal predators.  The tone of the film reminded me back in 2004 of James Cameron’s “Aliens”, and a decade has done little to change that view.

Whilst the film is undoubtedly a thrill ride, I do miss the underpinning sociological concerns of Romero’s film – where his zombies gravitated to the mall as it represented some kind of still extant collective memory from a time before the fall of mankind, Snyder’s zombies seem to treat the place as an all-you-can-kill buffet.

We might reasonably have expected a sequel to have followed by now, as this was quite the global hit, but Snyder’s skyrocketing career killed any chance of him returning to this material. A planned sequel was quietly shelved – perhaps sensibly, as studios wouldn’t touch an R-rated movie on this scale in these times of austere, micro-budgeted possession/paranormal PG-13 horror fare.

Snyder’s cast is more than solid, with the always excellent Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Jake Weber registering particularly in the leads – a pre-“Modern Family” Ty Burrell is also good value as an eminently slappable rich guy and Mekhi Phifer is particularly tragic as a petty criminal and expectant father.

A muscular, loud, brash blockbuster with many of Snyder’s stylistic touchstones – slo-mo violence, graphic sex and underpinning nihilism – present and correct, “Dawn of the Dead” isn’t particularly frightening but it is a gripping and expertly staged film.

It’s best described as a cover version of a classic horror movie, content to do it’s own thing.  Just be glad that Michael Bay didn’t get his mitts on it.