Friday 31 October 2014

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982)

As hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when the Halloween franchise wasn't supposed to stay slavishly tied to boogeyman Michael Myers. It was going to be a series of horror movies all tied to the horror holiday, and this film was the first entry to try something new. Unfortunately, nobody decided to give fans a heads up on the situation, which led to no small amount of confusion and resentment when Halloween III: Season Of The Witch was released back in 1982, making it also the last entry to try something new. The film has, thank goodness, developed a pretty strong fanbase in the intervening years. It may not have the slasher movie fun that the other Halloween movies have, but it's a dark film that mixes sci-fi and horror into one big seasonal treat.

Tom Atkins stars as Daniel Challis, a doctor who ends up investigating the strange death of a man who came into his hospital a few days before Halloween. He heads off, with the daughter of the deceased (Ellie, played by Stacey Nelkin), to the small town of Santa Mira, the place where Silver Shamrock is based. Silver Shamrock is a company that creates Halloween novelties, and it also may be one of the last places that the deceased visited. Run by a man named Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), Silver Shamrock seems to be up to much more than just making treats for Halloween. The company has some pretty tight security, a strong grip on the town, and a severe way of dealing with anyone who tries to interfere in its affairs.

Written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, with uncredited input from John Carpenter and Nigel Kneale (the latter had his name removed from the credits after seeing his initial story idea made into something much darker and gorier), this is a nasty slice of paranoia that just about manages to keep things tense and entertaining enough to allow viewers to forgive some ridiculousness in the third act.

Atkins does what he does best, so there are no problems with his performance in the lead role, Nelkin is a cute female companion, and O'Herlihy is wonderfully devilish in the role of Cochran. He's charming when in public, but soon reveals his true face when safe behind closed doors. Wendy Wessberg also makes a good impression in her small role, playing a colleague who ends up doing some extra investigatory work for Atkins. Nancy Kyes (who appeared in the first two Halloween movies, under the name Nancy Loomis) has a fun cameo role, playing the wife of Atkins, and Jamie Lee Curtis has an uncredited vocal cameo that fans should keep their ears open for.

The score, credited to John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, is absolutely superb, almost on a par with the iconic score created for the first film in the series, and there's a jingle for Silver Shamrock that will irritate and entertain you in equal measure.

 In case you forgot how it goes . . . . . . . . . . . . . here it is.

Superior horror fare that ended up suffering due to the fact it was released as a Halloween movie, this is well worth a revisit and reappraisal if you've not already given it another chance since it was initially released.


Thursday 30 October 2014

Horns (2013)

Based on the popular novel by Joe Hill, Horns is a supernatural drama directed by Alexandre Aja. And a damn fine one it is too. I LOVED the book, it became one of my instant favourites of the past few years, and this movie is a decent adaptation. As long as you remember that things have to change from page to screen.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Ignatius "Ig" Perrish, a young man who isn't very popular in his home town, to put it mildly. He's just gotten away with the murder of his loved one, Merrin (Juno Temple), and nobody believes that he's actually innocent. Well, nobody except perhaps his brother (Joe Anderson) and his best friend, who is also acting as his lawyer, Lee (Max Minghella). And his parents (James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan), of course. Except . . . . . . . Ig finds out that his parents actually have concerns about just what their son is capable of. He finds out after waking up with horns growing out of his head one morning. Horns that seem to cast a spell on the people around him. They find themselves suddenly telling Ig their darkest thoughts. There's a chance that Ig can use the horns to find out what happened to Merrin, but there's also a chance that they will just cause him more pain and suffering than he's already been through.

Written into movie form by Keith Bunin, Horns gets a hell of a lot right for an adaptation. Changes are made that help maintain focus on the most important characters, extraneous background stories are ruthlessly chopped out, and the unfolding "whodunnit" structure is successfully ported over, allowing viewers to make discoveries alongside Ig as he tries to use his new powers to find out what really happened, even if it turns out that he still has some blame to carry upon his own shoulders.

Aja isn't as at ease with the direction here as he has been in with most of his past movies, seeming to struggle with the balance of drama, love and mystery here that he hasn't really had to deal with before now. Don't take this the wrong way, but this is more The Lovely Bones than Satan's Little Helper, although it has the streak of dark humour that helped make the book such a great read.

Radcliffe is pretty great in the lead role, it has to be said. It's another big stride out from the shadow of Harry Potter, and he seizes the opportunity with relish, making a great Ig Perrish (wavering American accent aside). Temple is a good choice to play Merrin, a character who has more of a presence in her death than many others have while living. Anderson and Minghella both do really well, Remar and Quinlan are always good to watch, Heather Graham has fun in a small role, and the always-great David Morse is great, obviously, as the father of the deceased, a man who wants to hate Ig more than his inner gut and heart will allow.

Horror fans may find this a bit lacking, it's not especially bloody and never tense or scary either, but it's something a bit different from the norm, and it mixes the dark and delightful in a way that should please those of us who acknowledge that "the devil has all the best tunes" and, as AC/DC once sang, "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be".


Wednesday 29 October 2014

Torso (1973)

Much loved by giallo fans, and yet another contender often included when discussing templates for the modern slasher movie, Torso is enjoyable, twisted stuff. It is, however, also a tad dull in places, leading me to wonder just what I was missing if I didn't immediately consider it an unmissable classic.

Suzy Kendall and Tina Aumont are two lovely ladies in a film full of lovely ladies. Yes, Torso throws in plenty of gratuitous nudity and, in the second half, a big excuse for a sleepover that puts a bunch of potential female victims together. There's also a killer on the loose, of course, and that makes the ladies afraid. So afraid that they continue to get naked often enough to keep viewers happy, in between the moments of tension and/or bloodshed. And that's about it.

Director Sergio Martino is a significant talent, capable of much better work than what's on display here, and he certainly knows how to make his films aesthetically pleasing for those who like attractive women (hint: he tends to employ attractive women and then encourages them to disrobe). Torso has some of his usual flair, here and there, but it's just a bit too clumsy and ugly in places to be considered a top-tier Martino flick, in my eyes. The script, co-written by Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi, works well enough when setting up the killings, and explaining the sleazy background motivator for our mystery killer, but there are moments when it can't maintain any momentum, becoming preoccupied with fringe characters, mainly lust-filled men, who are of little interest to viewers.

Kendall and Aumont, as previously mentioned, are lovely, and that's all that's really required of them. This isn't a film designed to showcase acting talent. It's designed to showcase the physical assets of those ladies, plus Angela Covello, Carla Brait, Conchita Airoldi and Patrizia Adiutori. There are some men onscreen too, mainly Luc Merenda, John Richardson, Roberto Bisacco and Ernesto Colli, and they're all perfectly fine as they do whatever happens to need done in between more scenes involving the ladies.

There are some nice moments of gore, and it's easy to see why this is considered such a major influence on the slasher flicks of the late '70s and '80s, but it's let down by the meandering moments that feel like padding, despite its lean runtime. Still well worth your time, but I just didn't get an all-time-great vibe from it.

Oh, and I can't finish this review without praising one of the main alternative titles that this was known by - "The Bodies Presented Traces of Carnal Violence". How beautifully evocative and unpleasant is that? Both poetic and painful, which sums up the best of Italian horror cinema right there.


Tuesday 28 October 2014

Fragile (2005)

Jaume Balaguero is a considerable talent in the horror genre. Just check out his filmography if you don't believe me. And here he is, working once again with writer Jordi Galceran, to provide more thrills and chills for fright fans, with a tale that takes place in a hospital for children that's due to be closed down.

Calista Flockhart stars as a nurse, Amy Nicholls, who comes to work in the hospital for its last few days of operation. The children left in the hospital seem to share a collective fear of some presence in the hospital, something that may be connected to the abandoned second floor, and Amy starts to share their apprehension, to say the least, as she finds out more about her new workplace from a young girl named Maggie (Yasmin Murphy).

From the very first scenes to the final shot of the movie, Fragile is a film concerned with keeping viewers creeped out. There are moments to make you wince, and there are one or two gore gags, but the focus is always on genuine scares that mount up to create an atmosphere of real dread.

With a title relating to a number of different elements within the movie, it's hard not to jokingly refer to the lead role as the one that Flockhart was born to play (considering how often her fragile physical appearance has been the subject of celebrity gossip mags in previous years) but I'll try to restrain myself. Yet, it's equally hard not to want to scatter extra praise on her performance in an attempt to compensate for those who will write her off as "Ally McBeal". She's excellent here, and really IS perfect for the role. Richard Roxburgh, Elena Anaya, Colin McFarlane and Gemma Jones are all also very good, while young Murphy holds her own alongside her adult co-stars.

The script, co-written by Balaguero and Galceran, stumbles here and there (especially during one particularly awkward scene between Flockhart and Roxburgh), but those mis-steps are easily forgotten as the tension ratchets up and up, and everything slots into place for a finale that could go in any direction.

Reminiscent of great modern ghost stories such as The Devil's Backbone, The Orphanage, and A Tale Of Two Sisters, this is an impressively straightforward horror that should be a high priority for any fan after something genuinely creepy. Balaguero may have disappointed me slightly with Darkness, but he's made up for it many times over in the intervening years. This is another reason to look forward to everything he does.


Monday 27 October 2014

The Canal (2014)

With the likes of Calvary and Patrick's Day delivering the goods for discerning movie viewers, it would seem that the state of cinematic output from the Emerald Isle is in very good health. The Canal, a psychological horror movie written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, does nothing to spoil that image.

Rupert Evans stars as David, a film archivist who starts to suspect that his beautiful wife (Hannah Hoekstra), and mother of his child, is cheating on him. Things culminate in a night full of dark imagery and David passing out, only for him to awake the next day and eventually discover that his wife has not returned home. He believes that something very bad has happened to her, something caused by an entity that may also be after his young son (Calum Heath). But the main police officer (Steve Oram) who ends up investigating the disappearance keeps David in his sights as the main suspect, especially as his behaviour starts to deteriorate.

Kavanagh takes a number of familiar genre elements here and blends them together into a masterful display of what modern horror can do to creep out viewers. Almost every scene is an audio and visual selection of unnerving details, with the grand finale an all-out barrage to the senses that may well make even the hardiest horror fan experience a goosebump or two. And the very last scene is . . . . . . . . . . . . well, it was as inevitable and yet shocking as the final scene in Kill List, for my money.

Evans is fantastic in the lead role, a performance that sees him going through the wringer for almost 90% of the runtime. He's always sympathetic, even as his sanity is called into question, and it's hard not to keep hoping that there's some light at the end of the tunnel for him. Heath is a very sweet young lad, and does well to keep running along with his father as things start to get scarier and scarier. Kelly Byrne is likable enough, playing a young nanny who tries to help for as long as she can, and Antonia Campbell-Hughes isn't bad, despite her speaking so breathlessly at times that I thought she was about to expire mid-sentence. Oram puts in yet another great turn, he's certainly been racking them up in recent years, and Hoekstra does alright, although she's not onscreen for all that long, obviously.

The main problems I had with the film stem from the editing/structure that removed the element of surprise on a number of occasions. Oh, there are a couple of cracking moments that could well make your jaw drop, but it's a shame that there couldn't have been more of those. It is, however, understandable that Kavanagh decided to forgo more shocks and surprises in favour of genuine tension and scares, and I have to end up, paradoxically, also giving him credit for not trying to be too clever in a way that would have undermined the third act.

All in all, this is absolutely the kind of film that horror fans should seek out, support, and hope to see more of. Like the titular waterway, it's dark, it's chilling, and it's got depth.


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Sunday 26 October 2014

Nightbreed (1990)

"Everything is true. God's an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live"

Nightbreed is a typically ambitious piece of work from horror maestro Clive Barker. It's full of strange monsters, moments of impressive bloodshed, and a mythos that is quickly set up and invested in, to an impressive degree. I wish I had seen it a long time ago, because it's a new favourite of mine.

Craig Sheffer plays a troubled young man named Aaron Boone. Aaron has been seeing a doctor (David Cronenberg) for some time, due to his dreams about monsters and a place named Midian, but has finally started to feel better. Unfortunately, a bunch of ugly murders have occurred that seem to match Aaron's fantasies. The doctor claims to want to help Aaron, but it soon becomes apparent that he may have another agenda. And then things start to get REALLY interesting after Aaron finds out that he's not as mad as he thought.

Setting things up quickly, and rarely flagging as the plot unfolds, Nightbreed is a film I can't find too many faults with, much to my surprise. Yes, you have to buy into the main premise, but it's never a bad move to trust Barker when he's attempting to provide horror fans with smart, unique, adult entertainment. If you think that monsters are things to be imagined, and feared, by children then you should be thinking again after the first few scenes of this movie. Not only does it present the main monsters as outcasts from society, not necessarily meaning harm to others, yet willing to stand up and fight back when it's called for, but it also takes great pains to show different types of monsters, with a couple being in the more usual human guise.

I know that fans of this movie can recall all of the different names of the monstrous characters, and know who played who, but I'm not going to pretend that I was always able to keep track of such details. Give me one or two repeat viewings, and this is a film I plan to rewatch a number of times, and I'll retain more of the details, but for the time being I'll just admit that a lot of the wonderful creatures all blended together into one impressive group for me. That's not to say that they didn't have individual personalities and characteristics. They really did. I was just overwhelmed by so many wonderful details catching my eye in almost every scene.

Sheffer is fine in the lead role, although he's never been my favourite actor (sorry, I just couldn't ever really get over his fine turn as a major asshole in Some Kind Of Wonderful), and Anne Bobby is cute and sweet as the woman who cares for him. Cronenberg is a bit of a strange casting choice, so you may think, and his early scenes feel slightly frustrating and out of place, but that's all forgotten when he hits his stride after the first 15-20 minutes. Hugh Quarshie is yet another authority figure, a role he seems to have played for the majority of his career, but he's good at it, and Charles Haid is entertainingly over the top as a Police Captain. Catherine Chevalier and Hugh Ross are two main monsters I enjoyed watching onscreen (see, I did manage to keep track of some of them), and pretty much everyone onscreen, whether or not they end up covered in prosthetics, does a great job helping to realise the world and characters envisioned by Barker.

It's not often that work adapted from Barker's material ends up falling flat (who said Rawhead Rex? Hold your tongue) and Nightbreed holds up as a fine reminder that when the man is allowed to translate his vision from mental imagery to page to screen . . . . . . . . . . we horror fans are in for a major treat.


Saturday 25 October 2014

The Uninvited (1944)

Look beyond the "tea and crumpets, and stiff upper lips all round" oh-so-Britishness of The Uninvited and it's easy to see why so many people look upon it as a bit of a classic horror. But look straight AT that layer of Britishness and it's all too easy to see why it's sometimes forgotten.

This is a supernatural mystery thriller, the kind that makes for a nice tale beside a roaring fire (indeed, the protagonists start off viewing events this way - with curiosity and excitement), but it doesn't skimp on the scares, especially during a couple of cracking set-pieces that hold up as spooky delights all these years later.

Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, a brother and sister who fall in love with a house that sits on the coast of Cornwall. They find the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), and eventually manage to bag the house for a bargain price. They also receiving a warning. The house may be haunted, according to some. Roderick and Pamela find this idea quite charming, but only until the presence in the house starts to make itself known in increasingly unpleasant, and dangerous, ways.

Based on the novel "Uneasy Freehold" by Dorothy Macardle, The Uninvited was adapted into screenplay form by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, and directed by Lewis Allen. While I can't say how near or far the end result is from the source material, I can say that everyone involved has crafted a fine piece of work. It's not perfect, mainly due to the light tone that persists for a bit longer than it should in the first half of the movie, but it oozes quality, from the enjoyable unfolding of the plot to the impressive special effects.

Milland and Hussey are both good in their roles, easygoing and believable while dealing with supernatural events in a very grounded way. Gail Russell is the other main player, portraying a young woman, Stella, who happens to be the granddaughter of Beech and connected to the presence in the haunted house. She comes across as a sweet girl, one that Milland takes a shine to, and also serves to show the other main characters just how dangerous the house can be. Crisp, Dorothy Stickney, Alan Napier and Cornelia Otis Skinner all do their bit to help the proceedings along, with the latter two playing doctors looking at the central problem from two opposing viewpoints.

This would make a nice companion piece to The Haunting or The Innocents, despite the fact that it's not quite as good as either of those movies. Heck, put all three together and treat yourself to a triple-bill of classy chills (no, I didn't mean that to rhyme). The Uninvited is more playful, almost encouraging viewers to be one step ahead as the third act provides its main revelations, but that imbues the whole thing with the feeling of an old-fashioned parlour game, in between the moments that raise goosebumps. Which isn't the worst thing for a horror movie to emulate.


Friday 24 October 2014

V/H/S: Viral (2014)

I really liked V/H/S. I also quite enjoyed V/H/S/2, despite not finding it quite as good as the first movie. So I guess it's only natural that I ended up disliking a lot of this third entry in the anthology horror series.

Things start off badly. The wraparound idea this time is the worst of the lot. It just feels too erratic and static-filled, despite the fact that it links everything together effectively enough. Just. Thankfully, things pick up with the first tale, "Dante The Great". It is, like many of the better V/H/S tales, an old idea given a bit of a modern makeover. Justin Welborn plays a magician who finds his act getting better and better when he takes possession of a cloak that used to belong to Houdini. The cloak can give him amazing powers, but it needs something in return. The next tale is "Parallel Monsters", all about a man (Alfonso, played by Gustavo Salmeron) who finally completes his invention, a machine that serves as a doorway to a possible parallel universe. He meets another version of himself and the two decide to swap universes for a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, there are some major differences that Alfonso didn't take into account. Last, and least, is "Bonestorm", a fast and loose piece of nonsense about some skateboarders who find themselves in the company of some nasty demon types. And everything ends with the climax of the wraparound tale, which I should have mentioned was all about a man tracking down his girlfriend in the middle of some crazy events.

The strange thing about V/H/S: Viral is that the more I think about it . . . . . . . the more I try to convince myself I liked it. That's because of how good the first main tale was, and of how many individual moments helped keep the thing from every feeling too weak and slow. But, putting my more rational head back on, it IS too weak and slow. As much as I enjoyed "Parallel Monsters", for example, it's a tale that could have been told in half the runtime without any detrimental effect on the impact of the scares/gags. And I wish I didn't feel the need to go on and on about how bad "Bonestorm" was (from the guys who gave us the fantastic Resolution) but I do. Because it's one of the worst anthology segments I've seen in years, with the exception of anything from Ti West.

I've already mentioned Welborn and Salmeron above, and with good reason. They're the two best performers in the movie, involved in most of the best scenes. Everyone else is either hampered by bad material or epileptic camerawork, or both (yes, I'm on about "Bonestorm" again).

As for the talent behind the camera, Gregg Bishop is the hero of the hour, for it is he who wrote and directed "Dante The Great". Nacho Vigalondo is the man who wrote and directed "Parallel Monsters", and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are the guys who have to take the blame for "Bonestorm". Marcel Sarmiento co-wrote and directed the wraparound tale, "Vicious Circles", which shows a huge step down from than some of his earlier work, and that covers all of the main names.

Would I still watch another instalment in this series? Yes, because when it works it works REALLY well. But I was looking forward to this movie, as I had looked forward to both of the previous films in the series. I won't be so optimistic for any future entries.


Thursday 23 October 2014

Screaming In High Heels: The Rise And Fall Of The Scream Queen Era (2011)

There are some good reasons why the '80s are looked back on with such fondness by horror fans. The home video boon led to a seismic shift in business models and consumer appetite (as seems to have happened again recently with the many digital services we can now try), practical effects were gloriously gloopy, and discovering real gems was a much harder task before the internet exploded, this making each positive discovery much more rewarding.

Three other reasons justifying our fondness for the decade can be found here, and they are Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer. Okay, they may not appeal to the full demographic who watched many of their movies, but each woman had a way to capture the affections of most fans.

Jason Paul Collum brings together the three ladies to discuss their experiences (how they started in the business, memorable anecdotes and such). They're not actually together onscreen, but they cover similar ground, with each lady receiving the same amount of screentime, roughly. And then we get input from the likes of Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau, waxing lyrical about the decade that allowed them to become such prolific directors, and the women who helped them sell their titles.

There are also plenty clips to keep us amused, and some of the stuff on display here is ridiculous. Yet I won't deny that I would, and perhaps will, watch pretty much anything with these scream queens involved. Titles and ideas were created for the sole purpose of shoehorning these actresses into some roles, and I couldn't care one bit when it leads to the likes of Evil Toons, Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, and many more movies that are every bit as enjoyable as they sound.

Quigley, Stevens and Bauer approach their careers, and status, with a certain pragmatism that never leads to them looking down on the genre that made them such hot property, although it didn't necessarily make them rich. They don't claim to be experts on horror, but they do provide a view of how the scream queen phenomenon grew and grew, and how the bubble was filled up until it burst, thanks to their insider perspective.

The term didn't only apply to horror actresses in the '80s, of course, but that's certainly when it gained a popularity, and it's when companies decided to recruit more and more women specifically to mould into that role, which inevitably led to a decline in quality of the "stars" given convention time to meet and greet (and often get money from) fans. As these three ladies discuss that situation, it's hard to disagree with their disappointment. Yes, it could seem bitchy and toxic, but it doesn't.

As is the way with everything, something was seen to be popular, and was then exploited to the point that the market became oversaturated and people started to suffer, in terms of quality and in terms of finances. Thankfully, the original, and best, will always outlast the many copycats who come and go, and Quigley, Stevens and Bauer remain firm fan favourites while so many other names have been forgotten, consigned to the VHS bargain bin of history.

P.S. If you want to help Linnea Quigley out of a bad spot then please visit here and do what you can.


Wednesday 22 October 2014

Death Spa (1989)

I was in the mood for some dumb fun when I sat down to watch Death Spa (also known, at least at one point, under the name Witch Bitch). I wanted something cheesy, something delightfully '80s, and something that was simply entertaining. Death Spa covered two of those things.

It is, as you can guess from the title, all about a spa that becomes more hazardous than healthy for the people who use it. The owner of the spa, Michael (William Bumiller), worries that it may be the spirit of his wife, a woman who committed suicide. Alternatively, it may be a deadly scheme masterminded by David (Merritt Butrick), Michael's brother-in-law who blames him for the death of his sister.

Walking a thin line between competent and atrocious, Death Spa has some undeniable highlights here and there, but it's just bogged down by too many scenes featuring horrible dialogue, uninteresting characters, and not enough carnage. This kind of ludicrous premise is best served by a brisk pace and plenty of gore and/or gratuitous nudity. There's a little of both here, yet not enough of either.

Bumillier is a pretty weak leading man, especially when his character is supposed to be such a charmer who can easily keep increasing female membership numbers at the spa, and he's not helped by the script. Butrick doesn't fare too much better, although he at least gets to make more of an impression in the second half, as things get weirder and wilder. The gorgeous Brenda Bakke has a few scenes that will please her fans, Ken Foree has a few minutes onscreen, and those are really the only cast members who stood out. Oh, there was also Robert Lipton joining in with the fun in a way that makes him worth mentioning.

Writers James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise seem to have spent a lot of time either drinking or smoking substances that made their material seem more amusing than the end result here. It's a set-up that's rife with potential, none of which is fulfilled. Director Michael Fischa doesn't do enough to help, with even the aforementioned highlights never feeling quite as entertaining or over the top as they could be.

I'm sure that some people have fond memories of this one from the days when it was a blind VHS rental that ended up providing them with a fun 90 minutes (or thereabouts). But sometimes those fond memories, be they of movies or something else altogether, should stay as memories. Because bringing them back to be viewed with fresh (and, perhaps, older and wiser) eyes can lead to great disappointment.


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Tuesday 21 October 2014

Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Coming along a few years after the TV show, Tales From The Darkside: The Movie is a fun anthology horror movie, full of familiar faces and some entertaining nastiness.

The wraparound segment itself is a lot of fun, as a wicked woman (Deborah Harry) sets out to prepare and cook a small boy (Matthew Lawrence). In an attempt to delay his transformation into a main course, the boy starts to entertain his captor with the tales.
First off, "Lot 249" is a great slice of macabre fun, based (loosely, I'm assuming) on a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Steve Buscemi stars as a young man who has been wronged, but who has just taken receipt of a mummy that he thinks can help exact his revenge.
Then it's on to "Cat From Hell", a Stephen King tale (adapted into a screenplay by George A. Romero) about an old man (William Hickey) who hires a hitman (David Johansen) to kill a cat that he thinks is responsible for the death of his brother and sisters. Is the old man being paranoid, or is the cat really such a nasty piece of work?
The last tale, and a favourite for many viewers, is "Lover's Vow". Written by Michael McDowell, who also adapted the first tale from the source material, this sees James Remar playing a struggling artist who witnesses something unbelievable one night. It's a dangerous monster that allows him to live, only on the condition that he never tells anyone else of their encounter. Fortunately, Remar also meets the lovely Rae Dawn Chong on the same night. The two develop a relationship, but Remar wonders if he can break his silence to be fully honest with the woman he loves.
And then it's back to the wraparound story, of course, for a conclusion that allows viewers to see who will end up in that big oven.

Director John Harrison doesn't do too much wrong here, but he's helped immensely by three decent stories, a fun wraparound, and a collection of great actors in the main roles. As well as Steve Buscemi in the first tale, we also get Christian Slater and Julianne Moore. The second tale is mostly a two-hander, but I'm a big fan of William Hickey, especially when he's working in the horror genre, so that's not a problem. And Remar and Chong both work well in the last tale. Oh, I'd also better mention that Harry and Lawrence are a lot of fun in their scenes.

The script isn't the sharpest, but that's okay. Things work out, in this instance, thanks to the ability of the stars to carry the material, and the great punchlines for each segment. Everyone who has seen this movie remembers the third tale, yet the others are certainly above average for this kind of thing. "Cat From Hell" is the one I like least, and even that has a number of fun moments throughout, before it starts to tail off in the last few minutes (no pun intended).

There's plenty of dark humour, there's just enough gore to keep fans of the red stuff happy, and there are some enjoyable practical effects (some enjoyable for being good, and some enjoyable for being amusingly fake). It's also perfectly paced, coming in at about 90 minutes, therefore preventing any one tale from outstaying its welcome.

Despite my praise, this is far from the best anthology horror movie. It is, however, also far from the worst, and it's definitely worth your time.


Monday 20 October 2014

The New Daughter (2009)

I'm in a very good mood. I must be, otherwise I'd simply spend this review ripping this movie apart, detailing how safe and predictable it is, and how disappointed I was by the whole thing. But I'm not going to do that. Despite its flaws, of which it has MANY, I found The New Daughter to be relatively enjoyable while it was on. It tried to do something a bit different. It just tried to do it, sadly, while reusing moments and tricks that we've all seen countless times before.

Kevin Costner stars as a single father who moves into a new home with his young daughter (Ivana Baquero) and younger son (Gattlin Griffith). He's single because his wife ran off with another man, which causes quite a bit of frustration and resentment among the kids, especially the daughter. While adjusting to their new life, Costner starts to notice that his daughter is starting to act strange. She's changing, but he's not sure if it's the stress of their situation or something else altogether. Maybe something to do with the mysterious mound of earth located on their property.

Based on a short story by John Connolly, the script by John Travis suffers from having too many scenes that feel like flab. Watching a loved one turn into someone very different from who they used to be is not a new idea in the horror genre, and it's hard to stretch this material out when the transformation seems to occur so quickly, and so obviously connected to the newest oddity in the lives of everyone involved.

Director Luiso Berdejo treats the whole thing with more care than it deserves, arguably, which makes up for the intermittent weakness of the material. There are fake scares, of course, and one or two jumps, but a lot of the thrills are well-handled, with even the few "twists" still managing to provide enjoyable closure to certain scenes/sequences, despite their predictability.

Costner is someone I will watch in anything, and he's fine here. It's not his finest hour, and the role could have been filled by almost any actor in his age range, but he does well enough. Baquero is okay, but okay isn't quite good enough for her part in the proceedings. While she doesn't ever become bad enough to unbalance the whole thing, she's the weakest of the three leads. Griffith, on the other hand, does very well with the lesser role. Samantha Mathis isn't bad either, as a teacher looking to help the family adjust to their new situation, and Noah Taylor is horribly underused, playing an expert in the sort of earth mound that sits on Costner's property.

I wouldn't recommend this to anyone as a first choice. It's not scary or gory or decent enough for horror fans, and it's a bit too sedate for non-horror fans who fancy watching a horror movie. But I still think it's worth a watch, if you have nothing else available. But I do mean NOTHING else.


Sunday 19 October 2014

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Based on the popular Disneyland attraction (Disneyland? Walt Disney World? Pardon me if I've picked the wrong park, I've not been to either and I bitterly regret the loss to my childhood), The Haunted Mansion is a fun family horror movie that will entertain children for the duration. Unfortunately, it's not enough fun for anyone older.

Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason play Jim and Sara Evers, a married couple who are also successful realtors. Work has been getting in the way of their married life lately, but they plan to make amends for that with a nice weekend away. Just the two of them, plus their two children (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis). The start of their weekend away is interrupted, however, when Sara is invited along to a mansion that the owner wishes to put up for sale. Determined to just make a quick stop en route to their weekend destination, the family soon find out that they may be stuck in the mansion for longer than planned. A LOT longer.

With plenty of little touches that will be recognisable to those who have experienced the real-life attraction (which doesn't include me . . . . hmmph . . . . sorry, I'll try to leave my bitterness here) and lots of spooky spectacles in every scene that occurs after the mansion reveals its true colours, this is an easy film to sit back and enjoy, from an aesthetic point of view. The quality of the production design here can't really be faulted, even if some viewers may be as disappointed as I was by the lack of actual kid-friendly scares. There are a few, especially during the initial sequence in which most of the Evers family discover that the mansion is haunted, but those are soon abandoned in favour of standard escapades that could take place in any Disney movie.

Director Rob Minkoff does an okay job, it's certainly all pitched perfectly towards younger viewers, and David Berenbaum's script draws everything together nicely in a way that gives everyone a decent part in the unfolding mystery (yes, of course there's a mystery). Yet, it's strange that the leading man isn't allowed to get more laughs, and it's even stranger that so many moments don't feel as if they make the most of the setting.

Murphy is fun in his role, and Thomason makes for a lovely leading lady, but the supporting cast provides the most enjoyment. Terence Stamp is a delight as a creepy butler, Dina Waters and Wallace Shawn are both wonderful as some deceased servants, and Jennifer Tilly has some fun in a small role, playing a character who simply appears as a head in a crystal ball. Nathaniel Parker has a bit of a thankless role, he's the master of the mansion (and mourning a lost love), but he does fine with it, I guess, and young Jefferies and Davies are both likable enough as young Michael and Megan, respectively, with both adapting surprisingly well to the ghostly activity.

Not really worth your time if you're an adult, but it's a perfectly fine choice if you want to introduce young kids to the pleasures of ghosts 'n' ghouls and things that can go bump in the night. Because it's not always advisable to sit them down in front of The Exorcist. Baby steps are required, baby steps.


For another, more adult, movie choice for today (and most days in October) do get yourself over to this great blog written by Christianne Benedict. I am often bad at sharing the love for other writers, but Christianne is often very good at it, and it's about damn time I returned the favour. Even if she's a much better writer than I am.

The Sacrament (2013)

Ti West may well be the single most frustrating writer-director working in independent horror today. After making such a great impact with The House Of The Devil, he seems to have gone downhill with every subsequent release, constantly squandering his potential and making it increasingly hard to put his name forward as the shining light in horror that he could have been.

The Sacrament doesn't rectify the situation. It's done (when convenient) in a documentary style, but with opening credits to seemingly ensure, I guess, that the illusion is never once entirely believable. A. J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg are two young men reporting for Vice who tag along with a man named Patrick (Kentucker Audley) after hearing about the strange events concerning his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz). It turns out that she's cleaned up her life, after many problem years, and is living in an idyllic community overseen by a religious leader, Father (Gene Jones). Is paradise on Earth possible, or is everything not quite as it seems when the visitors start to look beyond the surface of this peaceful place?

Where to begin with my complaints about this movie? Well, I guess I could always start with what I actually liked about it. I thought Bowen was pretty damn good, as he so often is. Jones was alright, although not captivating enough to believe that so many people would flock to, and stay with, him. And Seimetz did well in her role. The general premise is a good one, with the first half playing out in a way that sets up a potentially brilliant back end. And there are individual scenes that are pretty bloody intense, such as the moment in which a desperate mother does what she thinks is best to protect her daughter from whatever might be in store for her.

The rest of the movie is either clumsy, lazy (which seems to be an unfortunate trait that West carries between each movie lately), or just ill-advised, at best. The opening credits are really the first warning sign that this is a director about to utilise a style he either clearly doesn't understand or doesn't want to bother with for the duration of the film. By the time we get to the second half, and the scenes during which the camerawork is clearly not being controlled by any of our main characters, then you just end up wondering what the whole point was. Well, that's if you can stop thinking about how unbelievable everything gets as the final third moves from drama into horror territory. Character motivations and actions make little sense, the tension dissipates just as it should be ratcheting up by degrees, and it eventually becomes a bit of a chore to get to the end credits.

There's also that problem with Jones, a problem I already mentioned above. He's good enough in his performance, but it's not the right performance for the role, one that is also sorely treated by a weak script. If this is a man who can gain numerous followers and rule over them in an idyllic commune then he must come across as someone who can sell veggie-burgers to vampires. Jones can't manage that. He never seems to have enough presence, or (worst of all) the courage of his convictions.

There's almost enough here to make me like this movie, that's the most frustrating thing about it. Once again, West has teased me with his potential before retreating into his comfort zone. And the worst thing is . . . . . . . I'll still hold out hope for his next movie. Just as I did for this one.