Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

Drag Me to Hell

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

drag-me-to-hell-movie.jpg

Drag Me to Hell takes director Sam Raimi back to his blood soaked, bile drenched horror roots. For a director with as varied a career as Raimi’s, it must’ve been a real kick to go back to the kind of film that made his name in the first place. It features possessions, bugs, demons, sacrifices and lots of goo of assorted colors and textures. In other words, it’s a hoot.

Drag Me to Hell is simply an exercise (or is that exorcise?) for Raimi to unleash his demented bag of cinematic tricks. It stars Alison Lohman as Christine, a sweet loan officer at a bank (her boss is played by David Paymer). Christine is in the running for the assistant manager position, against an obnoxious co-worker (gamely played by Reggie Lee). One day, an old gypsy crone named Mrs. Ganush comes in, asking Christine for another loan so she won’t be evicted. Subtly pressured by her boss, Christine denies her the loan.

And, then Mrs. Ganush curses her. The plot is basically an excuse for Raimi and his band of Merry Pranksters (the film crew) to assault poor Christine with a variety of nasty tricks. It makes for a well made, pus filled ride, that’s for sure. I was impressed by Lohman’s performance; not since Bruce Campbell has Raimi thrown so many obstacles into his hero’s path.

Lorna Raven also gives a good performance, as the withered, vengeance driven gypsy. Justin Long plays Christine’s doubting boyfriend, and Dileep Rao plays a psychic who aids Christine. There are several great moments in the film, such as Christine’s confrontation at a wake, a seance that gets plain weird (Adriana Barraza shows up here as a medium) and the kitten gag that occurs about an hour into the film.

Drag Me to Hell proves that, all these years later, Raimi can still make a potent cocktail of horror and humor.

Zombieland

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

zombieland-harrelson.jpg

A great deal of the success of Zombieland, the latest film featuring those popular, peculiar undead pests, can be credited to the presence of Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is a performer who has such energy, humor and, simply put, joy of his craft that he infects (zombie pun intended) just about any project he’s working on. As Tallahassee, the good ol’ boy who relishes shooting, hacking, smashing, chopping and stabbing zombies more than just about anything. Woody (and another actor who appears later in the film) give the film a spark it might have not had otherwise.

Zombieland is not, as you may have guessed from the trailers, really a horror film. It’s a comedy, a buddy film and a road movie. I read on IMDB.com that the director, Ruben Fleischer, intended Zombieland as a comedy in the vein (zombie pun intended, again) of Shaun of the Dead. Let me just say right now that Zombieland is not in the same league as Shaun of the Dead; not as funny, not as scary. That said, it is a good zombie movie, and worth checking out.

Although Harrelson gets top billing and steals the movie, he is not the main character. That would be Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg, star of the excellent The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland), a nerdy loner who is compiling a list of so-called Zombie rules to stay alive in “Zombieland.” Along the way, he teams up with Tallahassee, and before too long, two sisters join this small band of survivors: Wichita (played by Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

In addition to the four main characters, there is another key role played by a very famous actor, in a role I found to be hilarious. This actor’s performance is the second best thing about Zombieland, and although this actor’s identity has been revealed in other places online, I will leave it as a surprise to the reader. Let’s just say it’s a good one.

As I watched the film, I realize how ripe (third zombie pun intended) a monster the zombie is for the cinema. While other monsters (vampires, werewolves and the like) seem to fluctuate in popularity on the big screen, zombie films have done good business (and churned out some very good, and a few great, films). Zombieland is not a great zombie flick, but it’s entertaining, funny and it has several death scenes that are a hoot. Plus, more proof that Woody Harrelson is a terrific actor.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

oldman3.jpg

This film is Francis Ford Coppola’s blood-soaked love letter to the horror films of yesteryear. It is as gorgeous and as visually amazing as a silent film, but filled to the brim with flesh, gore and guts. Oh, and blood, lots and lots of blood. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is so impressive to look at, in fact, that’s it’s easy to ignore some of the film’s flaws.

The biggest, of course, is the casting of Keanu Reeves in the major role of Jonathan Harker, the “hero” of the film. Even Francis Ford Coppola has come out and criticized his choice here, but that’s a moot point; what’s done is done. Reeves’ stoic, solemn acting is sometimes perfect for the role (look at the first Matrix or Speed), but here it’s fair to say he’s out of his depth. In fact, Reeves’ dull as ditch water portrayal helps make a case that his young bride Mina (Winona Ryder) would in fact be better off with the Count (Gary Oldman).

One of the big changes between the original novel by Stoker and this adaptation is the inclusion of the love story angle. In a prologue, we learn that Vlad the Impaler (Oldman) went to fight the Turks, when he was away his young bride Elisabeta (Ryder) thought he was dead, kills herself and Vlad comes back and turns his back on the church after he is told by the old priest (Anthony Hopkins, who also plays Van Helsing, and the narrator, and the voice of the ship captain) that Elisabeta’s soul is damned for all eternity. Vlad rejects good for evil at this moment, and blood begins to pour out of the giant cross as Vlad embraces Satan, and becomes the undead…

The film was released as a Gothic romance, and is kind of like Romeo and Juliet with fangs. Oldman as Count Dracula is suave, but also evil and disgusting and horrific. It really depends which form Dracula takes on. There’s the creepy old man with the crazy bun hair, and then there’s a creepy werewolf thing, and also a bat creature, and then the smooth, dapper gentleman who woos Mina. Oldman, of course, is an amazing actor, and he is convincing in all of the Count’s many forms.

Winona Ryder plays Mina as a mindful, proper woman who is slowly transformed by forbidden lust into someone more passionate and uninhibited. Anthony Hopkins is over-the-top as Count Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing, and also a lot of fun (I’m always a fan when Sir Hopkins does one of his really ridiculous, hard to recognize accents). Sadie Frost (Jude Law’s ex wife) is the beautiful, tragic Lucy, who becomes Dracula’s first meal upon arriving in London. A great deal of the film involves Lucy’s three suitors (Richard E. Grant, Billy Campbell and Cary Elwes) dealing with the vampire Lucy, as Van Helsing gives them pointers on what to do.

One of my favorite supporting performances in the film would be Tom Waits’ weird interpretation of Renfield, the poor, sorry sap who became Dracula’s servant. I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is incredible to look at, but there’s an emotional distance to the story, and therefore it’s easier for the viewer to appreciate the film from a visual standpoint than from being emotionally involved in the story.

Credit must be given to the production design crew led by Thomas E. Sanders, the art direction by Andrew Precht, to the astonishing costumes by Eiko Ishioka (I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned the costumes in a movie) and the incredible cinematography by Michael Balhaus. Another key part of the film making crew was Coppola’s son Roman, only 29 at the time, who figured out how to accomplish many of the tricky visual shots that the film include, that were accomplished by largely old-school cinematic methods.

Prom Night (1980)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

promnightposter.jpg

The opening sequence of Prom Night is actually pretty creepy. Four children are playing a game called “killer” in an abandoned building, scurrying and giggling from room to room. A young girl, who wandered off from her older brother and sister, walks into the game, and the four children taunt and terrify her until she falls out of a window, landing on a plate of glass. Rather than going for help, the four vow to go home and never, ever, mention what happened to anyone. Then another plate of glass falls on the girl’s head.

Flash forward six years, and the deceased girl’s family are trying to cope. Mr. Hammond (Leslie Nielsen, yes, Leslie Nielsen) is the principal of the local high school, and his surviving children Alex (Michael Tough) and Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) are trying to get their minds off of the tragedy by preparing for prom. Of course, the four responsible for the death all get anonymous phone calls, telling them something to the extent of “I’ll be seeing you soon.” Gee, I wonder if it’s the killer.

From the ten minute mark to about an hour into the film, it’s all set-up with no real suspense or plot. That’s saved for the last 30 minutes, which takes place at prom. Along the way, there’s some good stuff, mostly provided by David Mucci as Lou, the ugliest, oldest looking bully you’re likely to see in a movie anytime soon. Lou looks about twenty years older than any other “high school student” in the movie. Of the four guilty teens, Eddie Benton as the nasty, conniving popular girl Wendy is the only one who really leaves an impression.

One aspect to this entertaining but dated slasher film I really enjoyed was the excessive disco flavor to the production. If any sole pop culture artifact could be considered responsible for the “death” of disco, it might be this film. That being said, I got a sick thrill out of seeing Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis disco dancing at the prom.

Also, Prom Night was a Canadian production, and I never got tired of the actors talking about going “ooot side,” or asking what all the commotion was “aboot.” Unfortunately, the film transfer on the DVD I watched was awful, too dark in places (so dark, in fact, that some scenes I kind of had to guess what was going on) and the sound wasn’t very good either. It might have been the print itself, who knows.

Prom Night is by no means a “good film,” but I have a soft-spot in my heart for cheesy 80s slasher films. Always have, probably always will. Plus, this film contains a terrific decapitation scene. That’s got to be good for something.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

nightmare.jpeg

For a film that is almost 90 years old, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a power to unsettle and disturb that is pretty astonishing. Directed by Robert Wiene, this silent classic is widely considered to be one of the first true horror films, and is one of the high points in German Expressionistic silent film (don’t I sound like a smarty-pants?) It also has an amazing, bizarre look and style that probably inspired countless filmmakers.

Like Nosferatu, Metropolis, King Kong and other early sci-fi/fantasy/horror films, the exact influence that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has had on the history of film is probably immeasurable. The film centers on the young Francis (Friedrich Feher) who tells a story to another man regarding the sinister Dr. Caligari (the wonderfully expressive Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist henchman Cesare (the silent film star Conrad Veidt). Francis believes that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are behind the murder of Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Francis’ friend.

Things get murkier when Cesare kidnaps Francis’ young love Jane (played by Lil Dagover). The sequence where Cesare abducts Jane is justifiably famous, and the moment where he plucks her out of her bed is still chilling after all of these years. Most films are lucky to have one memorable villain, this film has two.

As I said earlier, the visual look of this film is astounding. The backgrounds are not realistic, but rather a nightmarish, unsettling landscape of twisting shapes and jagged edges. I learned on the Internet Movie Database that the sets were made out of paper, with the shadows painted on the walls. I can definitely say that the film has a look that you’ve probably never seen before.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also feels ahead of its time in regards to the ending, which could probably be considered a “twist.” It’s unusual for a silent film, I think, to have an ending that makes the audience question the film they’ve just witnessed. This is a horror film, of course, but it has a psychological depth to it, that I think is part of the reason why the film has resonated with so many audiences over so many years.

Army of Darkness

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

    evildead31.jpg

    While the original Evil Dead was a brutal, straight-up horror movie, and the second was a blood-soaked, comedy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness is sillier, lighter, breezier.  Yes, it still has monsters and demons and mutilations and possessed people, but it also has a goofier tone, and Bruce Campbell as Ash is now basically an honorary Stooge. The film would probably best be described as a slapstick horror/fantasy.

    At the end of the second Evil Dead film, Ash winds up in Medieval England, where he slays a Deadite (that’s what the demons are called in these films) and is praised as a hero by the people of Medieval times.  In this film however, Sam Raimi retells the story, this time having Ash being immediately captured by the knights, led by King Arthur (Marcus Gilbert).  It should also be noted that in this film, Linda is played in the opening sequence by Bridget Fonda (it’s amusing that Linda is played by a different actress in every Evil Dead film).

The film is basically an excuse for Bruce Campbell to get into fights with demons, get hit, punched and kicked by just about every character in the film and for there to be a variety of terrific quotes.  Everybody has got their favorite, mine just might be “Well, excuse me, mister fancy pants!  You ain’t leading but two things right now: Jack and Shit, and Jack just left town.”  While the first two films really felt like Raimi’s unique vision, this one has the distinct feeling of studio involvement, in this case, Universal.

Raimi’s directorial style is apparent in a few scenes, most notably the moment where an unnamed enemy soldier gets thrown into a pit, and a long silence begins, as various characters peer into the pit, waiting a show.  After a moment of silent anticipation, we see Ash’s reaction shot, as a geyser of blood erupts from the pit.  It’s bizarre, gory and hilarious.

The film contains a few great movie in-jokes, I think immediately of the skeleton army that is a direct homage to Jason and the Argonauts (another favorite line is when the skeleton screams “Let’s get the hell out of here!”).  There are also shout-outs to the animated version of Gulliver’s Travels and to The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Of course, Campbell is ridiculous (in a good way), mugging and over-the-top and reminding us that he is a fine actor.

Originally, the film was supposed to end on a much different note, with Ash waking in a post-apocalyptic future.  This ending I think better fit with a recurring theme of the films, which was how Ash is an idiot and has horrible luck.  The ending the film has now, though, is a happy ending, of sorts, and does give us a super closing line: “Hail to the King, baby!”

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

dvxkvzycdo1kae_l.jpg

If horror film in-jokes alone made a good horror movie, then 2001 Maniacs may have been on to something. First of all, it’s a remake of the film Two Thousand Maniacs, directed by cult horror icon Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was produced by Eli Roth, who made the Hostel films, and Scott Spiegel, who co-wrote Evil Dead II (Roth and Spiegel head up Raw Nerve Films, alongside director Boaz Yakin, who also produced). The film features roles from many prominent horror film icons, including Robert Englund, Kane Hodder and Roth himself.Unfortunately, a horror film can’t be good just because it knows it’s a horror film and has lots of in-jokes and references other horror movies (although often it helps a little); if the film isn’t scary or funny or suspenseful or interesting, than all that in-joke stuff just doesn’t matter. Sure, Englund as a crazed, cannibalistic Southern mayor is fun, but the film isn’t about him, or the tyrannical Southern matriarch Granny Boone (Lin Shaye, who is also well cast), it’s about a bunch of horny, boring college kids on their way to spring break, who take a wrong turn and end up in a Southern town still miffed about the Civil War.

In fact, (and I’m not giving anything away, trust me) they’re upset because they were all killed by embittered Yanks. That’s right, the film is about a town of vengeful Civil War ghosts who kill goofy, stupid college students. It’s a great set-up, but there’s not much else to it. There’s a few great death scenes, like when one of the slutty college students gets ripped apart by four separate horses (one tied to each of her limbs), or when the young man gets his stomach burned through with acid while he’s having sex with one of the Civil War ghosts.

If it’s sounds cool, that’s because I’m only mentioning the interesting parts. I’m not mentioning of all of the pointless, uninteresting scenes between the various college students (all of who are young, pretty and really, really bad at acting) or how the movie screeches to a halt when one of the vengeful Civil War ghosts (or CWGs, as I should refer to them) is not murdering a devastatingly boring college student (DBCS).

This movie needs more CWG, and less DBCS. But, that’s not how it works out, is it? For some reason, Peter Stormare and Travis Tritt (yes, the country singer) appear in small roles. I thought Tritt was effective in his very brief appearance as a gas station attendant, he should have had a bigger role. So should Eli Roth as a psychotic hitch-hiker. 2001 Maniacs would have been more enjoyable if it had pushed the limits of the gross-out humor, and the ghoulish murder scenes, and less of the crummy stuff. A mixed bag.

Evil Dead II

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

18946315.jpg

There is a sadistic, savage sense of humor that pulsates through Evil Dead II. While Sam Raimi’s original film in the trilogy, The Evil Dead, was a terrific, inventive horror film, his sequel is a gory, intense horror/comedy hybrid, right up there with An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead and Re-Animator. It’s like Night of the Living Dead meets Deliverance meets The Three Stooges, co-directed by Dario Argento and Buster Keaton. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

A good deal of the credit, of course, goes to the genius of Sam Raimi, who takes the film to the limits of taste, and then pushes it a little further. His vision in this film is cartoonish and horrific, subtle and over-the-top, super-cool and chaotic. The special effects team, led by the legendary Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, also is responsible for a great deal of the impact that this film still has. Surely composer John LoDuca’s chilling and beautiful score is part of it, too.

But, without the inspired performance by Bruce Campbell, the film probably would not have such a devoted following, nor such a cherished reputation. In the first Evil Dead film, Campbell’s performance as Ash was competent, but there was a bit of woodenness to it (this was understandable, since it was his first film). However, his work in Evil Dead II is a joy to behold. It is over-the-top, ridiculous, undeniably hip and incredibly demanding from a physical stand point (there are scenes where Campbell’s body movements are timed to the slightest detail). There is a sequence where Ash’s hand becomes possessed by an evil spirit, and the hand retaliates against its master. It is a masterpiece of comedy and of suspense, and Campbell pulls it off perfectly.

There is a mini-controversy over whether Evil Dead II is a true sequel, or if it’s a remake. Here’s the story: the film is a sequel, but since Sam Raimi could not start the film with a recap from the original (there was a problem over the film rights with the distributors), Raimi retold the story of the first film at the beginning of this one. So, at the seven minute mark, the sequel officially begins.

In this one, Ash and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), drive up to an old abandoned house in the middle of the woods and Ash plays that dang recording and unleashes the dark forces of Hell, who immediately possess Linda, forcing Ash to chop off his darling’s head with a shovel. And then it gets weird.

Evil Dead II is funny because of its over-the-top presentation of the violence, especially in how many of the fights seem like they were staged by a Three Stooges fanatic (oh wait, they were). The excessive amounts of blood, guts, shattered bones, entrails and assorted body parts stop, at a point, being nauseating and start being funny. Two of the supporting performances also add to the underlining humor of the film, those would be the performances by Dan Hicks and Kassie DePaiva as the country bumpkin Jake and his hillbilly princess Bobbie Joe. Hicks, especially, balding, sweaty and sneaky, creates a human character every bit as reprehensible as the demons in the film. Sarah Berry as Annie, the missing professor’s daughter, adds a gentle, kind touch to a dark film. Richard Domeier, as the tall, blond hero type Ed, is your typical B-movie performance, until he turns into a hulking monster, that is.

I must, of course, also mention Sam’s younger brother Ted as Henrietta, the professor’s possessed wife, who was buried in the fruit cellar. His first appearance is an especially creepy moment. I can’t tell you how much I love Evil Dead II. It’s a blood-soaked treasure.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

evildead1.jpg

There are many important rules that one picks up while watching horror films, some of which Randy the film nerd (maybe Jamie Kennedy’s only decent performance) warned us about in the film Scream. Two important ones that aren’t mentioned in his monologue are broken within the first twenty minutes of The Evil Dead: 1) Never vacation in an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods, and 2) Never awaken ancient evil spirits, intentionally or unintentionally. If you do, your friends will probably all become possessed, and you’ll have to butcher them all to save yourself. Just saying.

Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead was a landmark horror film of the early 80s, and helped set the bar for inventive, terrifying monster films. It also was the first in an incredible horror trilogy, followed by Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness. According to the Internet Movie Database, Raimi is also set to direct next year’s Evil Dead remake, and also, there’s an off-off-Broadway musical based on the films.

While Evil Dead II is both a horror film and a comedy, and Army of Darkness is slapstick/horror at its finest, the original is a straight-up horror film with some comic elements. The film was shot over four years, by Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Bruce Campbell, and, believe it or not, it’s held up pretty well. It is ridiculously over-the-top in the blood and gore department (always a good sign for horror movies), and it’s also still frightening (watching it again recently, I was surprised how much I still jumped).

The plot is simply an excuse to show lots of possessed demon creatures, and lots of blood, guts and entrails. In other words, the good stuff. As Ash, the reluctant hero, Bruce Campbell, the great cult cinema star, is not up to his later performances in the series in this, his feature film debut. His acting here’s a little stiff, as is most of the cast. But, that stiffness helps add to the idea that these are just normal college students out for a weekend getaway. The four other main actors (Richard DeManincor as Scott, Betsy Baker as Ash’s girlfriend Linda, Theresa Tilly as Shelly and Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl) suffer a lot of beatings and thrashings, perhaps none worse than Sandweiss, who gets raped by a variety of plants and weeds, who have been animated by the evil spirits. Ouch.  (Trivia note: Bob Dorian, the host of American Movie Classics, is the voice of the ill-fated professor on the recording Ash plays).

The 1980s had many important horror films that revolutionized the genre. The Evil Dead would definitely be one of them.

Habit

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

habit.jpg

Ambiguity can be very effective in a horror film, and few modern horror films push the ambiguity factor as far as writer/director/star Larry Fessenden’s 1997 indie film Habit. Shot in New York City, Habit tells the story of alcoholic artist type Sam (Fessenden) who begins a passionate relationship with a woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider) who may or may not be a vampire. The film is successful in the way that for a good duration of the film’s running time, we’re really not sure what’s really going.

Understandably, Sam’s not doing too well. As the film opens, his father (also an alcoholic) has just passed away, and his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) has moved out, although she is vague of the current status of their relationship. He is on his way to a Halloween party, and while there, he meets the mysterious Anna, who seemingly appears out of thin air. He leaves with her, but he’s completely drunk and grabbed the wrong coat and one thing leads to another and she’s gone.

Some time goes by, and Sam meets Anna again, at a local carnival. They make love, she bites his lip and draws blood and he wakes up alone in a park with his pants off. The film gets progressively stranger, as Anna and Sam continue seeing each other, and upon each romantic meeting, she ends up drinking some of his blood. The film is not subtle on the connection between the violent and the erotic, as many vampire films fail to ever mention.

The title refers, I think, to a few things. One, Sam’s drinking habit, which helps blur his comprehension of fantasy and reality. Also, there’s Sam and Anna’s habit of meeting for passionate, but bizarre and violent bouts of lovemaking. Also, there’s Anna’s habit of drinking Sam’s blood, which does give Sam some cause to worry.

One effective element to the film is the fact that this was Meredith Snaider’s sole acting credit, so it helps to further the idea that Anna seemingly appears out of thin air. Snaider’s delivery of the lines is somewhat stilted and choppy, but I really think that helps her character seem aloof, other-worldly and helps the audience feel uncertain about her character’s true intentions. Fessenden creates an unsettling mood for this film, especially effective is a sequence with Anna and Rae (Patricia Coleman), one of Sam’s friends, outside in a thunderstorm, the characters half-shrouded in a darkness.

Many horror films are not confident enough in their material to let the film cast its spell, to let the terror and menace of the story spread slowly, to take its time. Habit may not be a scare-a-minute horror film, but you’ll definitely remember it long after it’s over.