Category Archives: Horror

Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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Movie Review: Don’t Breathe

So, Friday night I offered a friend of my a choice in which movie I’d load up into the blu-ray player; 2016’s Ghostbusters or a thriller/Horror Film Don’t Breathe. he selected the thriller

We regretted it.

The set-up is simple and right from it’s premise Don’t Breathe is a deeply flawed project. Three cardboard cut-put teenage characters engage in burglary for their chase. Money is he punk-kid character, without any redeeming qualities, Rocky is the girl trapped in a bad life searching for a way out, and Alex is the ‘decent’ kid doing this because he has a deep crush on Rocky. Alex uses his access to his father information at a security service to locate their targets. Nothing about these characters is unique or compelling, and more importantly nothing about them is engaging enough to overcome the fact they break into people’s house and rob them. They are thieves. If your characters are going to be thieves, they had better be interesting.

Things get going when they up their game from burglary to home invasion. The trio are tipped about an old blind man who scored a big settlement after a young woman killed his daughter in an auto accident. For reasons never explained – because they don’t exist – our trio knows that the blind old man keeps his big settlement in cash in his home and not in a bank or T-notes, or anything else that would actually make sense. Luckily for them the old man also is a subscriber to the right home security service so Alex isn’t utterly useless.

The three go and break in, displaying a level of smarts and idiocy that can only be plot driven, and get trapped in the house. The Old Man is blind but not helpless and it becomes a fight for their lives. In an effort to make the three more sympathetic the Old Man is revealed to have some pretty nasty secrets but that just transforms the plot into bad people doing bad things to other bad people.

Nothing about this movie is original or interesting. The plot details pile upon each other, breaking all sense of believability.

Truly we would have been better off with Ghostbusters 2016.

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Movie Review: Get Out

It has taken me a little longer to see this film than I had planned. There’s nothing about this film that I did not like and that did not work. Get Out is Jordan Peele’s freshman outing as a feature film director but you would not know that from the quality of the product.

Horror movies are a difficult beast to pull off well. There are tons of low budget horror films released each year, some to theatrical release and many directly to home video and streaming. What most horror films have in common as a weakness is an over reliance gore and explicit violence intended to shock an audience. Of course that very over reliance dulls any effect of gore and explicit violence, repetition turns the shocking into the mundane. Peele, as writer and director, understands the nature of horror far better than many who have toiled in the field for decades. Horror is a mood, is a sense of wrongness that creates unease. I have once heard horror defines as a knock on the door at midnight and when you open the door, there’s a clown.

Get Out is about a likable young man, Chris Washington, going away with his girlfriend Rose for a weekend at her family home. Going to meet the parents is always stressful, but this trip is more so because Chris is African-American, Rose is white and she has not warned her parents of Chris’ ethnicity. When They arrives Chris is aware that not only is he isolated in a sea of Connecticut Caucasians but the few other African-Americans in the small town act decided odd and suspiciously servile.

This movie has been favorably compared to the 70’s classic The Stepford Wives, and that is not an bad point of reference, though the plots of the two stories are distinctly different. Get Out does not rely upon ‘body counts’ to drawn the viewer into tension or to raise the stakes. The film is smart and expects its audience to be smart as well. there are details and elements that seems merely odd on the first viewing but later maker perfect sense and without the story stopping to explain them to you. This film is powered by mood and for me really getting into the terror of being alone and the other. The cast are uniformly great at their roles but I have to give a particular shout out to Betty Gabriel who takes a smile and a look and delivers gigabytes of information and terror.

This is a terribly good movie and one that should not be missed.

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Movie Review: Kong; Skull Island

 

The other day I was speaking with friend who also enjoys movie about Jackson’s remake of King Kong and he commented that he enjoyed the film it got back to New York. Now if you agree with that sentiment then Kong: Skull Island likely right in your wheelhouse.

The movie has the usual first act set up of meeting the characters, providing just enough depth to satisfy the requirements of a major tent-pole action film, and getting the relationships into a rough geography.

With the housework behind them then next two-thirds of the movie is action on Skull Island. Meeting fantastic beasts, being chased by monsters, the thinnest of explanations for why we haven’t seen these giant kaiju monsters before, and then wrapping all up with a message of ecology and humility.

This movie is competently crafted without glaring idiotic errors but that landed the final product, in my opinion, just okay. It was fun and engaging on the surface but it lacked the grip to hold my unbroken attention and my mind wandered.

Now as with all things your mileage may vary and I want to repeat that this is not a bad movie. I am happy I saw it, and the spectacle is enough to justify the big screen viewing. The film does more work establishing the shared cinematic universe to come than it does in servicing its own story and that’s the biggest flaw.

There is a button that follows the end credits but if you want it unspoiled do not read the title card announcing that this film is a work of fiction. (I did read it *sigh*)

Overall a fun film for giant monster fans but I’d keep to the matinee price level.

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Sunday Night Movie Sadako vs. Kayako

While this is billed as my Sunday Night Movie, I started it Sunday evening but finished it Monday. After the energy expended at Condor 2017 I simply pooped out and couldn’t watch it all in one go, particularly since it is subtitled and required a greater mental focus.

I first learn of this film last year when a friend and I drove up to Los Angeles for an after evening at Universal Studios, taking in their Halloween Horror Night, and then scooting over to Hollywood for a late screening of 1979s Dawn of the Dead in 3D. (Verily that was cool.) While my companion took care of his pre-show bathroom break and concessions the trailer for this film played.

If you do not recognize the names these are the ghosts or spirits from The Ring franchise (Sadako) and The Grudge (Ju-On) (Kayako). So as you can see it is not just American that is interested in bad guys fights such as Freddy vs Jason.

Overall this was better than the aforementioned Freddy vs Jason. The cast is comprised of fairly likeable and relatable characters competently acted. The film’s action is contemporarily set and so they had to dance around a few issues since Sadako does her bad magic via a VHS tape. Also for the sake of compression, I assume, they reduced her kill curse from seven days to two.

(If you don’t recall The Ring or Ringu the Japanese original version, if you watch the tape then your phone rings and a voice tells you ‘seven days’ and when that time has passed you die. Ju-On was centered on a house where a spirit of vengeance visited violence and death on all who lived there, for this film that has been compressed to simply entering the haunted home.)

The production values are decent and there are plenty of both in your face jump scares and atmospheric scenes that rely on tension for their effect. I was particularly fascinated by an exorcism scene. It was quite interesting watching one that was non-western and not driven my a monotheistic religion.

Of course the main event for a film of this type is the throw down between the two powerful spirits. (Though at one point both are referred to as ‘ghouls’ and I wonder what the original language translated as.) On that score the big confrontation is rather spare and short but better that than overly drawn out and tiresome.

In terms of tone it borrows more from Ringu than Ju-On. It has a conventional western narrative structure rather than the sequence of incidents that Ju-On utilized. In the final resolution it leaned more in the direct of Ju-On.

I enjoyed my viewing but not enough to see a need to purchase a copy.

Sadako vs Kayako is currently streaming on Shudder.

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Condor 2017

This weekend is Condor, San Diego local SF convention. I will be attended as panelist and fan.

Here are the list of panel that I will be participating on if you want to stop by and listen.

Friday

Zombies, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Tropes 12:00 noon

Writing What you Know 1:00 Pm

Mad Scientists in books and Film 3:pm

Saturday

Horror in Harry Potter 1:00 pm

Bad Science in Movies & TV 7:00 pm

Sunday

How Big will Science-Fiction Get? 2:00 pm

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Sunday Night Movie: The Shallows

I had an interest in seeing this film during its theatrical run but finding the time proved difficult and the film vanished before managed to get out to my local multiplex. The previews looked mildly interesting and a YouTube reviewer, MovieBob, gave it a decent review.

If you missed the trailed the set-up for The Shallows is fairly simple and direct. Nancy played by Blake Lively, is surfing off an isolated beach when a killer shark arrives, wounds her, and she ends up trapped on a spit of rock that is only above the ocean’s surface during low tide. Right there we have all the elements of dramatic story; a likeable, relatable protagonist; immanent, deadly threat, and a hard deadline preventing our hero from simply trying to wait out the danger.

There are the requisite emotional complications, Nancy is dealing with the loss of her mother making her estranged from her father and undercutting her sense that life has a purpose and value. A wounded seagull gives the character someone to speak to and a chance to display compassion that to heighten her likability.

Naturally with a set-up like this everyone come down the try and fail cycles of story telling. Blake has several plans to escape but they fail leaving her situation more dire with each failure.

Overall the movie was competently made and displays a few inventive techniques for handling the usually decidedly non-visual issue of telephone calls. On the whole I enjoyed watching it and on home video the film played out just fine, but this movie is not without flaws.

Shark Behavior: okay just as with Jaws, this one is a gimmie. Real sharks don’t do what sharks in movies do, but you gotta let them have it so they can have their movie.

Vision Underwater: With a device, facemask or such, to keep the eye clear of water you can not seen well under water. Certainly not enough to do the things she does. This one could have been fixed and it annoyed me.

In the ocean things do not stay put: This keep tossing me right out of the story. In the film there is a large whale carcass that draws the shark into the area. Okay that’s fine, but it stays in place throughout the entire movie. It is not beached, it is free floating. Sorry, it either goes out to sea on the currents or it washes up on the beach. It will not maintain station as a fixed point of reference.

Still, even with the flaws the movie worked on a home video level and if you like this sort of suspense this will likely work for you.

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Oh, the Horror

So I have been working on a presentation that I intend to pitch to our local SF conventions, a history of zombie films. I’m treating the movies like an evolutionary tree and it’s been a challenge, a fun one, putting the presentation together.

Here is one of the slide to give you an impression of how the thing is looking.

The downside has been some of the research. Now mind you no one at all is making me watch any film. It’s just that your host and narrator is a bit of a masochist.

Hell of the Living Dead, a low budget Italian rip-off movie, (they even steal who music cues from the 1979 Dawn of the Dead)truly tasked me. I couldn’t watch more than 20 minutes at a time and so it was over several night before I completed that one. From the look of it I’d say the producers couldn’t afford to have more than 8 zombie extras in any single scene. It also boasted the least convincing military special forces unit ever. From their equipment, their ‘tactics’, and utterly non-uniform hair, nothing about these men resonated as anything other than second rate actors trying to look tough. Besides insulting the military the film also offended anyone with a care for the social sciences. Truly I had never heard of naked anthropology before. It was the second most gratuitous nude scene I had witnessed. (The first goes to the Roger Corman production of Forbidden World where two female characters have a shower in order discuss what to do about the rampaging killing monster.)

I also watched Shock Waves, an early film with NAZI zombies and Peter Cushing wishing desperately he was back aboard the Death Star. Really, given nothing to do but repeat bad exposition that had already been given in a prologue voice-over, Cushing still performed like a champ and a professional. However this film was a load of slow nothing with aquatic NAZI zombies who can apparently be killed by having their eye-gear removed.

Oh well, this Sunday I go the Universal Studios Hollywood and tat will be fun and relaxing.

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Sunday Night Movie: Lights Out

It is no secret that I am a fan of horror films. One of the earliest memories I can access if of a full color bloody horror movie playing on the screen of a southern drive-in. I often tell people that as a child I did not read fiction and as such many of the beloved childhood classics were missed by me, but I recently realized that there was some fiction I read; ghost stories.

Lights Out is a ghost story and there is no doubt that ‘my’ monster is the ghost. I have tried to analyze just what it is about ghost that so fascinates me but that will require someone with a little emotional separation from the subject – me.

Ghost stories have several basic beats and structures that you generally find in common. Lights Out hits all these beats in a competent and clear fashion and yet someone remains a movie that failed to have me fully engaged.

The story of Lights Out is direct and straight-forward. Rebecca is the estranged daughter of Sophie, living on her own over a tattoo parlor unable to reconcile with her mother over her father that, without any word then or since, abandoned the family a decade or more earlier. Now Sophie has remarried and Rebecca has a small half-brother to whom she is devoted.  It is into the volatile mix of family drama that the ghost, with lethal intentions, appears. The gimmick to this movie is that ghost only appears in darkness and so flashing lights creates the image or a spectral figure that appears and vanishes with each flicker.

The plot moves forward to a clean logical progression. The characters’ motivation is understandable and believable. The suspense and shock are delivered in an adequate manner and yet someone the film never caught my undivided attention. IT may be that the mystery of the ghost was not quite deep enough to provide a sense of revelation when it was explained. It may be that the exposition was repeated and it wasn’t a terrible difficult concept to understand. For whatever reason the film was fun enough to watch but not compelling. At times during the climax I found myself wondering just what was the lumen cut-off that dispelled the ghost.

It is not a bad movie and certainly it had a few curves in the plot. A few things that would have been quite cliché they avoided and the resolution, though flawed because it was not driven by the protagonist’s action, brought everything to a satisfactory conclusion.

Overall – worth the time on Disc or streaming, a C grade passing but not memorable.

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It’s not the Close-ups, it’s the Script

A failed film that I still enjoy and own on blu-ray home video is the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. (I also own a copy of the original which I had seen some years earlier at a local art house theater.) Th film is fun, the actors are talented, and the music endearing, but the film is seriously flawed and the theatrical release version is substantially different from the original cut. The blu-ray hosts both version the original release a director’s cut restoring the ending. In the following discussion there will of course be spoilers for the film and one for the television series Breaking Bad. (Trust me it will make sense to link the two properties.)

Still with me? Good.

The original ending of the film, just as with the stage play, our hero, Seymour Krelborn feeds his dead girlfriend to the carnivorous, intelligent, and evil plant Audrey II (Named after the girlfriend) and then later himself in a bizarre suicide. The film continues for more than seven minutes of the plant and its offspring conquering the world until it burst from the screen to threaten the audience directly.

The ending played horribly with test audience and reshoots quickly changed the ending. Now Audrey I, the girlfriend, survived her wounds, Seymour battles Audrey II and saves the world with only a hint that the danger has not been fully bested.

Even with the happy ending the film never found a wide audience and continues on as a minor cult favorite. In interviews and audio commentaries Director Frank Oz as stated that he had not understood the power of ‘close-up’ and how they transform an audience’s relationship to the characters and thinks this is why the test audiences rejected a movie where the hero dies at the end. The close-up had erased the distance and now the audience possessed too much empathy for such an ending to work.

I think his analysis is wholly wrong.

In the story Seymour, poverty stricken and almost certainly doomed to a life on skid row discovers that through the alien plant he can have fame, wealth, and love of the girl he adores, Audrey. The wrinkle is that the plant feeds on blood, human blood and quickly its appetite grows beyond what he can safely provide from pricked fingers. Audrey II manipulated Seymour’s infatuation with Audrey I to convince Seymour to murder her boyfriend, a cruel and sadistic dentist, so that the corpse can be fed to the plant.

When Seymour goes armed with a pistol to kill the dentist a serous of comedic accidents lead to the situation where the dentist is suffocating on laughing gas and Seymour stands by and does nothing as he dies.

In articles published before the movie was released Oz confessed to shooting the story in such a way as the preserve Seymour’s innocence and not make him a blatant murderer. He failed.

In Breaking Bad the protagonist Walter White goes on a five season decent into evil until he transforms into a thoroughly rotten man. At one point, rather than loose an associate to a new girlfriend, Walter stands by and watched as the girlfriend, passed out from a heroin binge, chokes to death on her own vomit.

In both case the characters were presented with the ability to prevent a death and took a knowing and willful act to do nothing, both are murderers.

An altered song from the soundtrack stressed how the play understood this dynamic but that Frank Oz did not. There is a song, and it’s quite good, call The Meek Shall Inherit. The song plays out with a chorus as Seymour is presented with numerous contracts and deals to solidify his fame, fortune and change of luck. Seymour almost rejects the offers, knowing that means more blood, more bodies, more murder, but he fear of losing Audrey is too powerful and knowing all this he signs. The song ends with chorus sings that ‘the Meek will get what’s coming to them.’ In the film, both versions, the entire second half of the song with Seymour’s knowing decision has been edited out. The set-up for the ending has just been removed.

These two elements are the largest factors why that ending didn’t play, the story was altered so that it promised one thing and delivered another. Few stories can survive that. You have to set-up and payoff the right ending for the right story.

Two other elements, not as critical, also play into the film’s failure.

First, this was 1986 and dark film about doomed heroes were on the outs. The cinematic landscape demanded relentless upbeat movies and clear heroic victories, big mainstream movies no longer engaged in ending that were better suited to the 1970s.

Second, seven minutes of the monsters taking over the world? In a movie that ran a total of 103 minutes, not even two hours? It’s dull to watch that much film roll bye without a single character that is known the audience. Al the named characters are dead or gone, it’s spectacle for the point of doomed and dark ending that won’t play in that decade.

No, Mr. Oz, it was not the close-up of Rick Moranis or Ellen Green that doomed your movie, it was botched story telling.

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