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Halloween Horror Film #3

Sunday night movies, keeping in line with my plan for nothing but horror films between now and Halloween, was the Swedish ghost story Alena.

I was fortunate enough to see this movie at 2016’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival where it struck me as one of the best movies in a festival filled with fantastic films. It was also at the Festival where I learned about the streaming service Shudder, which is dedicated to Horror cinema and has a better selection for that genre than any other streaming site. I had not seen Alena in the time between last year’s festival and this weekend and I had a few concerns that perhaps it was not as well made as my memory insisted.

Those concerns were misplaced.

Alena is the story of a low-class girl, Alena, who following a personal tragedy transfers to an all-girl upper-class private school. Poor and a new comer Alena is quickly targeted for bullying by leader of the in clique, Fillipa, while also picking a new friend and potential romantic entanglement with Fabienne. Complicating matters is a friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Josefin who acts as Alena’s personal protector and confidant. Things get out of hand and soon girls are being attacked and terrible tragic secrets surface.

Alena is based on a graphic move but I have not read the source material so I cannot speak to the quality as far as adaptation goes but this film is stylish and well crafted. You would do far worse for seasonal viewing. The most serious flaw in the films productions deals entirely with the foreign edition. As I mentioned the movie is from Sweden and it is presented in Swedish with English subtitles. However, whoever performed the subtitling was not fully fluent in English. There are word choices and grammar constructions what come of at the very least as clunky and in some cases are simply wrong. Do not let the occasional translator failing distract you from this terrific movie.

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Halloween Movies 1 & 2

So in the spirit of the season I plan to watch a lot of horror film between not and Halloween culminating in a big screen presentation of the 4K restored Night of the Living Dead supervised by George Romero before he passed away,

Saturday I watched two horror films.

First The Norliss Tapes:

This was a made for TV movie from 1973. A published is concerned with one of his authors, Norliss, who had been investigation and debunking the supernatural goes missing. At the author’s home he finds a series of tapes and the film to the story recorded on those audiocassettes.

Written by the talented William F Nolen this film just did not work for me. I will not hold Nolan too responsible, working for a network is an exercise in notes, meddling, and uncredited re-writes. This movie is about Norliss uncovering a mystery and the truth behind the story. Sadly they filmmakers never cracked the essential trouble in making a mystery, how to handled the tons of exposition. This film was 70% people telling each other things and very little dramatic conflict or narrative. I think that this project exists solely to attempt to cash in on 1972s TV movies The Night Stalker. That TYV film generated tremendous ratings spawned a sequel and a series. The Norliss Tapes, with the particular style of voice-over narration and its central monster of a reanimated corpse draining pretty women of their blood, feels like a rush copy of 72s monster success. Thankfully it was short, 72 min.

The Second movie was Split

It is a shocking twist that M. Night Shyamalan can still make really good movies. Split is the story of three teenage girls kidnapped by a man and held captive in some underground industrial center. Making their predicament worse their captive has multiple personalities and a vague unmet personality ‘The Beast’ has terrible plans for them. James McAvoy plays the kidnapper and the trio of girls is lead by Anna Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Morgan. This movie is taunt, tight, and tense. The actors play their parts well, the script works without major holes, and the direction is sure footed, building suspense and tension in scene after scene. This one is worth watching, get the blu-ray and pop it in.

 

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Sunday Night Movie: A Cure for Wellness

Kicking off the Halloween season with my home video habits over two nights I watched the horror film A Cure for Wellness. (Sunday night proved to be so exhausting that even though I was thoroughly into the film I simply could not muster the endurance to complete it in a single night.)

Directed by Gore Verbinski, who also brought us The Ring (US version), Wellness is about a young ambitious and morality challenged young man, Lockhart (Dane DeHann) who has been dispatched to a mysterious sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to retrieve an financial; executive because someone in the company has to take the fall and it is either the executive of Lockhart. The sanatorium is run my the smoothly menacing Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and caters to a rich clientele that never seems to have any desire to leave this place, its amazing waters, and of course ‘The Cure.’ Lockhart becomes a prisoner/patient of the sanatorium and falls into a world of hallucinations, mystery, and body horror.

A Cure for Wellness has Verbinski’s distinctive sense of style. Unlike many who have worked in the horror genre, Verbinski understands that the most effective horror is powered by mood not by gore or a sudden jump scare. As Lockhart’s world crumbles and the mystery deepens the horror grows, bubbling up organically from strange and unsettling characters, the disturbing visual, and just the right amount of body horror. Like many a good horror story, curehas a mystery at its heart and the unwinding of those threads form the core of the plot. This is not a film build around ‘kills’ but around the omni-present threat and the terror of not understanding what is happing to you or what it all means.

Sadly, this film is flawed and flawed enough that the style and the visual ultimately are not enough to carry it across as satisfactory finish line. The story has structure problems, Lockhart escaping twice from the sanatorium is one escape too many, giving the movie a repeated beat that weakens the raising stakes. The third act’s mystery is a good one but in order to have Lockhart resolve it requires the character to have a strength of self that is not well established. The climatic fight between Lockhart and the films ultimate threat breaks what had been up until that point a very well established sense of physical realism, but during the combat falls that would break bones and leave a person unit for further resistance become mere set-backs undercutting a film that had been working.

I am glad I watched A Cure for Wellness but it will not be added to my collection and when I need horror from Verbinski I will turn to The Ring.

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Were Roger and Peter Gay?

Saturday night I attended a screening of 1979’s Dawn of the Dead. (Apologies to a friend who didn’t make the screening. Had I known you would have trouble finding the theater I would have changed my mind on the logistics.) This is only the second time I have seen

Image copyright MKR productions
Peter(L) & Roger

this film in a proper movie theater environment and it still works and moves at a good brisk pace without losing theme or character. What happened last night though is that I started think about the relationship between Roger and Peter. Spoilers will follow.

Brief recap: Fran and her boyfriend Stephen, television news people, have stolen the station helicopter in order to flee the zombie apocalypse. They have invited their friend Roger, a swat team officer to flee along with them. After a harrowing incident in a large public housing building, Roger has invited Peter to also join them. It is clear that Roger and Peter only met for the first time during that night’s action and Peter is a total unknown to either Fran or Stephen. They fly in the helicopter for more than day and end up in a mall that has been overrun by the dead. Here it becomes a story of the survival and dynamics of the band of four characters.

Stories like this one are not new and many of the issues raised have been tackled in other setting, most often with a nuclear attack providing the collapse of society and the isolation of the characters. It has also been common to have the dynamic been that there is one couple and another man or two without a romantic or sexual partner. When this happens a very common complication is the frustrated sexual desire created by the only woman in the area being bonded to another man.

This never happens in Dawn on the Dead (1979.) Stephen and Fran have issue with their relationship but no hint of desire or attraction is ever apparent in either Roger or Peter. Rather Roger and Peter express a powerful bond for each other. They hatch plots together, trust each other implicitly in times of great danger, and when Roger is bitten, sealing his fate to die and rise as an undead, it provokes the strongest emotional expression from Peter. Nothing else in the story’s events comes breaking Peter’s locked-down facade of control like Roger decline, death, and re-animation. Even after Roger passes from the plot, Peter displays no interest in Fran, instead retreating away to giver her and Stephen room romance as he spends the time at Roger’s grave. At the climax of the film, after battling a marauding outlaw gang, and Stephen’s death, when Peter and Fran escape together, there is no sexual or romantic undertone. The chemistry simply isn’t there.

Perhaps the close bond Peter and Roger shared is the brotherly bond of fellow soldier, men who face terrible times together and who must trust each if they are to survive. However, they have no history together in the field. They have only just met, and there’s the case of no interest in Fran. Apparently Stephen, a character with a markedly fragile ego, had no issues or concerns in inviting another man to flee with he and his girl. Is that perhaps because he knows Roger well enough to know Roger does not care for women and thus he presents no threat? Could it be that Roger’s impulsive offer to Peter a man he had just met was prompted by fully functioning gay-dar?

In the text there is no conclusive proof of this hypothesis but neither can the film falsify it. It is a question that each viewer will have to answer for themselves.

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Cinematic Time Capsules

All art reflects the times that its creation. This is true of poems, paintings, sculptures, prose, and movies. As a fan of film it is always interesting to me how many decades have a distinct tone and feel to them reflecting to social mood and issues of their periods.

Recently my sweetie-wife and I watched three films from a few decades ago and the time capsule effect struck me fairly strong. The movies in questions were The Italian Job, Get Carter, and The Heroin Busters. All three captured a distinct mood from their societies and culture, and though all were produced and filmed outside of the United States they reflected the changing tastes and expectations of the American audience for whom that had been intended.

The Italian Job is a comedy/heist movie. Produced during the rule of the Production Code it is a foregone conclusion that film’s protagonists cannot get away with the money. Hailing from the mid 60s the movie reflects both a traditional and non-traditional viewpoint. Our heroes are thieves and criminals, their lifestyle are not presented as self-destructive this is most non-traditional when compared to the noir of the 40s and 50s or the gangster films of the 30s. Yet the target of the heist ends up being Red China making their illegal actions a part of the larger Capitalism vs Communism struggle, and you can hardly get more mainstream than that.

Get Carter produced during the early 70s, just a few short years later, is a completely different animal. Jack Carter, a London hoodlum, has returned to his detested home in the north of England to find out who killed his brother and why. Carter is often called a bastard and it’s very hard to argues with that label. he is ruthless and cruel. Every person associated with the murder of his brother he kills, often in a cold blooded fashion that further his hunt for the next target. Like many films of the 70s, Get Carter, presents a flawed main character whose victory is pyric and hollow.

The Heroin Busters is an Italian exploitation movie about undercover police infiltrating and destroying a heroin smuggling ring. Cynical and violent the movie reflects that the low budget cinema had moved to a tone and style meant to reflect a ‘street’ sensibility. With violence and nudity more gratuitous that Game of Thrones, this movie captures the low entertainment of the grindhouses, a venue and style of films not found only in history and nostalgia.

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Retro Review: Real Genius

Over the last two nights as I sat unwinding from editing my latest Work In Progress I re-watched Real Genius. Hailing from 1985 the movie is about abnormally bright people and the University that they attended. (A very thinly disguised cinematic version of CalTech.) Real Genius is the second movie to introduce me to Val Kilmer. This first is Top Secret! the box office failure that is a favorite of mine and Weird Al Yankovic. Unlike the better known Revenge of the Nerds Real Genius has a genuine affection for its smart and somewhat socially outcast intelligent characters.

The plot is direct and straight-forward, Mitch Taylor a genius at 15 has been discovered and selected by professor Hathaway for early admission into the school. Hathaway has an secret motive in recruiting Mitch. Hathaway, played by 80’s light villain William Atherton, is late in delivering a laser capable of assassinating a person from orbit and he wants Mitch’s brilliance to help his team deliver the weapon no one knows that they are working on. On Hathaway’s team is Chris Knight, (Val Kilmer) the leading smart man but also someone who lives life to the fullest and is a cut-up. This is a coming of age story for young Mitch, learning hard lessons about being lied to and find love with the quirky, manic, but certainly not a ‘pixie girl’ Jordan. (Played wonderfully by Michelle Meyrink who, but the end of the 80s, retired from acting for personal fulfillment via Zen Buddism.) Truly, I remember 30 years ago sitting in the theater just captivated by Michelle’s Jordon. Who could not love that character?

This is a farce, the characters are overdrawn, the science is not possible but nor is it simply magic, and the being an 80s movie there are several musical montages, but this film works and it is worth your time.

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Movie Review: IT

Saturday night a friend, myself, and several member of the San Diego chapter of the HWA went to a screening of IT. I have not seen the 1990 adaptation nor have I read the book so my review is based solely upon the screenings I attended.

IT is based on the mid-1980s horror novel by Steven King and the story had been previously adapted in 1990 into a two part miniseries. The story concerns a group of just barely pre-teen adolescents of outcasts and misfits that call themselves ‘The Losers Club.’ When they discover that the rash of child disseverances currently plaguing the town of Derry Maine is the works on dark supernatural forces, they take active control of their lives and battle the demonic force. The’ big bad’ takes the form of Pennywise, The Dancing Clown making this a particularly difficult film for those that find clowns inherently creepy or frightening. The original story dealt with two plot line the Loser Club as children dealing with Pennywise and a 27 years later as adult when they discover that Pennywise has returned. The film wisely adapts only the children’s story then attempt too much in a single film.

The movie works well enough. It has plenty of suspenseful scenes that work, it has a number of jump scares that are well timed and effective and utilizing an ‘R’ rating it does not shy away from the more graphic elements of horror. . While all of the on screen talent is good and credible in their performances it is Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise that dominates the film. That said for me the film’s ending didn’t quite find its target. I do not think that this is an artifact of the split storyline. Plenty of questions are raised about the town of Derry and Pennywise but very few are any are truly answered. From what I know of the novel the adult storyline barely answer these questions either. Perhaps the sequel will tie this up, and after a 117 million dollar opening weekend there will be a sequel, but I can only judge this film on its own merits. The movie works, I enjoyed seeing it, but the lack of a strong ending weakens the presentation and it is not going to be joining the other horror films in my library.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 35 years later

Last night I went the Fathom Event Anniversary screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I remember standing in line on a hot summer day on San Diego 35 years ago waiting to see this movie. It did not disappoint then and it did not disappoint last night. There are few SF/Fantasy films that hold up well over a single decade much less three.

Last night’s presentation was the Director’s Cut, presenting a few expanded scenes and a couple of alternative takes, but essential the movie, like the song, remained the same.

I am not going to recap or review the film. By now you have seen it, known about, or just don’t care.

I was surprised by how much the film moved me. Mind you not only have I seen this multiple times before, but I own this edition on home video. This is one of my very favorite films, a movie that has very very few flaws, and one I often watch to raise my spirits. I went last night because it had been more than 20 years since I last watched it on the big screen and never this particular edition, I expected to enjoy it, but not get emotionally invested all over again, yet that is exactly what happened.

The battle in the nebula still excited me, set my heart racing and quickened by breath, I still wanted to scream at Kirk as he walked into the trap upon the Enterprise’s first encounter with Reliant, and Spock’s sacrifice continued to be a gut-punch. This is the power of art, to move you, to reach in and grab you by the feels even when it is well know and familiar territory. This is why re listen to albums over and over, buy television program on home video, and re-read books. It is humbling and astounding.

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An Additional Theory on Horror

There are plenty of theories as to why someone may enjoy the horror genre, be that in book, movies, or some other media.

There’s the safe-danger theory, which to me sounds like it really comes down to adrenaline thrill. This is much like why you might enjoy roller coasters. It feels dangerous but you are aware that you are safe for the entire experience. To me there is an element of truth to this idea.

There is the related but slightly different cathartic theory. This one posits that people enjoy horror as a way of facing fears in a safe environment and vanquishing them. You might then of it as an immunization theory, we face what scares us in safety the way we face weakened or killed diseases when we get out immunizations. Again, this is not without merit.

While I was watching horror films all weekend long at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival I thought about the nature of horror cinema and how often those of us who enjoy started it quite young. This prompted an idea that perhaps one of the key elements of horror and why we enjoy it is control.

Children have no control over their lives and even as we progress through adolescence and on into adulthood we never experience full authority over the events to determine our fate. The lack of control is perhaps an essential element of horror. When you are trapped in a haunted house, the bridge is washed out, or there is nothing but the terrible vacuum of space outside you are trapped and isolated but you are also denied the control over your actions that might allow you to flee, Hunted, haunted, or stalked all have strong elements where the control, the power, and the authority over events passes from the character to the antagonists. If the story ends happily the protagonist gains control over their life, if the story has a darker ended then as the audience/reader we are comforted that in our own lives we retain more control that those poor bastards.

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The Past Weekend

The weekend just passed was a pretty good one, though not without its frustrations. (Nothing compared to my family back east dealing wit hurricane Irma. Everyone is well, safe, and for that I am thankful.)

The most irritating aspect to the weekend and the reason there were no daily updated about the festival was that my desktop computer began misbehaving. The issue appears to be resolved but for several days there any attempt to use any browser was futile, pointless, and terribly frustrating.

That said, the weekend was a blast. This was the 8th annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, San Diego weekend devoted to new and fresh horror cinema. Start my festival director Miguel Rodriguez the fest attracts entries from around the world with both short and feature films exploring the entire range of horror.

Most people think of horror as a narrow genre but that does it a disservice. While horror certainly includes the spooky supernatural stories of ghosts and monsters, the stalking unstoppable killer, and outlandish aliens, the genre also includes thrillers and psychological stories. There were a number of critics and film experts that considered the academy awarding film The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie. HIFF covers all that and more. With themed blocks centered around the themes such social issues or LGBTQ subjects Miguel Rodriguez shows that horror can make you think as well shiver.

This year’s selection of movies, both short and feature, were outstanding. I had hoped each night or morning to give you a few stand out titles but those computer woes I mentioned earlier killed that idea.

This years low point, the films that did not work for me, were still quite good and I can’t say that I ever felt I had wasted time sitting in the lovely venue at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

In addition to seeing wonderful films, movies that for the most part I could never see elsewhere, I also helped man the information table for the San Diego Chapter of the Horror Writers Association. On Sunday I was there for several hours talking stories, films, and writing with people who are much better at this craft than myself, learning from their feet.

I can’t recommend enough if you have an interesting in horror cinema and have the means, come to San Diego next year, see our large and wonderful park, and have you blood chilled and your spine tingled.

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