Category Archives: Horror

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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Revisiting: Aliens

Last night I pulled down by big blu-ray boxed set for the Alien films and selected 1986’s Aliens as my Sunday Night Movie. At the start the disc presented me with a choice; 1986 theatrical release or the 1992 Special Edition? I selected the Special Editions and settled in with my bowl of popcorn.

The film is as fast and as exciting as ever and I have seen the special edition before but on this viewing my connection to the film seemed somewhat different. I approved of the many scenes restored to the film that deepen and expand the Ellen Ripley. A character that lacked even a given name in the original classic film. However when it comes to the scenes depicting life in the doomed colony Hadley’s Hope before the parasite destroys them I found I had come to a different opinion that the one I had held for a number of years.

Films, just as with prose stories, have character points of view and Aliens is a story told from Ripley’s POV. If you look at the first film, Alien, it is told with several points of view a technique used by the screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusette to disguise which of the characters was the protagonist and thus they kept the audience off-balance as to who would liver and die. (A technique George R.R. Martin has been quoted as copying for his epic A Song of Fire and Ice.)

Aliens wisely doesn’t attempt to recreate this ambiguity. We have ridden with Ripley through the first horror and our identification with her is strong. Looking at it from that perspective the extended scenes that take place on Hadley’s Hope violate this film’s POV. Ripley is not there and there is no one to relay those scenes to her. It is information she will never know and as such it is information we should not know.

There are plenty of moments in the special edition that still work with Ripley’s POV, scenes she either directly participates in or where her relationship with characters in the scenes would allow her to reasonably be aware of the events and those I would advocate retaining, but I think all the Hadley’s Hope scenes should be excised.

Of course it’s not my film and so that’s not going to happen, but it is a peak into my thoughts on story structure.

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Movie Review: Train to Busan

Oh the movies and their zombies. From way back in the pre-code era with Bela Lugosi starring in White Zombie and transformed forever by George A Romero with Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has been a favorite for films. In more recent decades the sub-genre has exploded internationally and now available for rent and purchase via iTunes and other portals from South Korea comes Train to Buson.

I was quite lucky and in that I did not watch this on my home television but rather I got to see it in the 46 seat micro-theater Digital Gym here in San Diego and if you get the chance to see this properly in a theater you should leap at it. (If you are in San Diego it plays through Thursday January 13th.)

The story is about a father, Soek Woo (Played by Yoo Gong) and estranged ten year old daughter Su-an. (I am guessing at her age as I don’t remember if that specified it in the film even though it opens on her birthday.) He is the typical hard working corporate ladder climbing parent who has let the career displace family and Su-an desperately want nothing more for her birthday than to take the train to Busan and see her mother, who is also estranged the father. The zombie outbreak erupts and their journey becomes one of survival.

For long time zombie fans, these are more akin to 28 Days Later, fast moving and fast transformation that Romero’s slow implacable marchers.

This film is no low budget knock-off affair. The actors, from the leads down to the smallest supports, were selected with care and fit perfectly into their parts. The director makes excellent use of the tight and closed confines of the setting to created a situation of terror, dread, and claustrophobia. The writers manages the often difficult task of upping the stake continually without either becoming predictable or shattering disbelief by racing too far too quickly. The film is bright and full of colors but retains an essential darkness born of the dread and danger while never slipping into cynicism.

Aside from a few fairly minor editorial quibbles, like submarine films I think this would have greatly benefited from no shots outside the train and never allowing the viewers a moment of relief from the claustrophobia, this movie works beautifully. It was horrific, exciting, engaging, and by the end deeply touching, go see it if you can, rent if you must.

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Revisiting John Carpenter’s They Live

Released in 1988, towards the end of Reagan’s second term, They Live is a film that I often jest represents the moment in time when John Carpenter lost his talent. There has not been a Carpenter film that followed where I did not feel robbed of my money and time for having viewed it, while before They Live there are several movies that I enjoy repeated showings.

HBO is currently showing They Live and through the gift of streaming I rewatched the movie to see if I had been too harsh in my earlier appraisal or if time would confirm my conclusions.

The film still does not work. The front half of the movie works, mostly, and the second half is a jumble of confused and clichéd scenes. The concepts and ideas behind this movie are strong, powerful, premises which are applicable today as they were in the late 1980s. The film has a viewpoint critiquing rampant capitalism, consumerism, and economic inequality. Granted the handling of this message is heavy-handed, no one can accuse Carpenter of subtlety, and setting aside if you agree or disagree it is good to see a film that takes a stand and a viewpoint. It is better to have something to say than to simply fill the screen with riotous color and explosions such as any Michael Bay franchise flick. There are better and slyer critiques on these themes, you need look no further than the original RoboCop for that, but the failure of They Live is not the stand it takes but the technique by which it takes them.

Most glaring is that the film  establishes itself with a slow pace that reveals bit by bit menacing dread but then suddenly it changes into an action film that requires absurd coincidences and idiotic enemies to reach even a marginal resolution.

How does Gilbert find the boys in their hotel? How does Holly find the resistance? Why didn’t the police secure the parameter before assault the resistance? Why is the door leading to the most important device in the enemy’s possession unlocked?

None of this makes any sense.

The problems only go deeper when you try to unravel the world building. Listening to the audio commentary by Carpenter on his film Prince of Darkness illuminated for me that Carpenter doesn’t do backstory or world building and this is a great flaw for his scripts. If the aliens are here to ravish our world of wealth, then why are so many of them in common shops and stores, working as tellers in banks or regular patrol officers?

It makes even less sense the more you try to work out exactly how this functions. This movie is a series of ideas, many of them powerful, but slapped together in a manner that undercuts all of them.

I would love to see a real remake of this. Not a quick cash grab that has been done to other Carpenter properties, yes I am looking you The Fog. This could be a franchise starter. The issues, a secret alien subversion of our world, our economics, our lives, is too big for one movie. This could be a great dystopia series for adults instead of teenagers.

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