Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE BEST OF 2009

20. UP IN THE AIR - (Jason Reitman)















19. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL - (Ti West)














18. THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS - (Werner Herzog)









17. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - (Spike Jonze)










16. TWO LOVERS - (James Gray)












15. ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL - (Sacha Gervasi)












14. BROTHERS - (Jim Sheridan)












13. FANTASTIC MR. FOX - (Wes Anderson)










12. THE MESSENGER - (Oren Moverman)












11. CORALINE - (Henry Selick)











10. EXTRACT - (Mike Judge)












9. IN THE LOOP - (Armando Iannucci)












8. A SERIOUS MAN - (Joel and Ethan Coen)












7. PUBLIC ENEMIES - (Michael Mann)











6. THE HURT LOCKER - (Kathryn Bigelow)











5. ADVENTURELAND - (Greg Mottola)












4. OF TIME AND THE CITY - (Terence Davies)

















3. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - (Quentin Tarantino)












2. CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE - (Nevaldine/Taylor)












1. REVANCHE - (Gotz Spielmann)












Best Director: Nevaldine/Taylor, Crank: High Voltage
Runner-Up: Gotz Spielmann, Revanche

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers
Runner-Up: Nicolas Cage, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, Julia
Runner-Up: Ursula Strauss, Revanche

Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Runner-Up: Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Runner-Up: Samantha Morton, The Messenger

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Runner-Up: Gotz Spielmann, Revanche

Best Adapted Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Dave Eggers, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Runner-Up: David Benioff, Brothers

Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
Runner-Up: Peter Zeitlinger, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Best Film Editing: Marc Jakubowicz and Fernando Villena, Crank: High Voltage
Runner-Up: Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, The Hurt Locker

Worst Movie of the Year: The Hangover
Runner-Up: Avatar

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Messenger - (Oren Moverman, 2009)

The Messenger is the rare indie drama that truly works. Most of this has to go to first time director Oren Moverman, whose script, if lacking in thematic originality, is enriched with narrative invention. Due must also go to the excellent casting and performances, which collectively rank at the top of the year’s list. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), injured while on tour in Iraq, is assigned to a death notification team, with seasoned veteran Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Essentially, they inform a fallen soldier’s next of kin of that death, experiencing the most primal and inexplicable emotions of those family members. The material would be ripe for exploitation, if Moverman’s handling of it weren’t so carefully moderated and if Foster and Harrelson didn’t hit just the right notes. One particular assignment holds interest for Will; he becomes interested in Olivia (Samantha Morton) whose husband was killed in Iraq. Moverman isn’t interested whatsoever in the sexual relationship, but in two people both broken down by war, needing another person to confide in, comfort them. Nor does the film delve into easy anti-war polemics; it remains concerned with the psychological ramifications these characters must confront in continuing their lives. Even the monologues afforded each character don’t ring false, but rather an honest expulsion of genuine feeling and anguish. Nothing about the subject matter is easy and it’s a relief Moverman doesn’t feel the need to exploit that unease; on the contrary, his honest evocation makes for tough, forthright, riveting human drama.

*** out of ****

Brothers - (Jim Sheridan, 2009)

Jim Sheridan, given the entirety of his films, is obsessed with nationality, which in turn, becomes patriotism. Many wondered why he did 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but it’s concurrent with his interests, given the potent narrative about black identity. He’s at it once again in Brothers, a remake of the superb 2004 Danish film. The narrative now concerns a young American family, bereaved by the loss of Cpt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire). His wife Grace (Natalie Portman) is left to raise their two daughters, with the help of deadbeat, ex-con Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who still likes to get drunk on a nightly basis. A relationship forms between them, but when Sam is found alive and returns home, it gets a bit complicated. The melodrama in Sam’s return is grounded by the authenticity of Sheridan’s intent and the humanity of the performances. Sheridan isn’t exploiting the war in Afghanistan for sentimentality, but a sincere view of a family afflicted by such pain. Nevertheless, he doesn’t aim for the gritty realism that plagues so much indie cinema; it feels like a major motion picture and this goes a long way in allowing the unlikely scenario to hold credence. The drama comes from the small bits around a dinner table or an intense man-to-man between Sam and Tommy, who’s being grilled about his potential sexual transgression. The sex, though, is only the fuel for Sam’s disillusionment, a man forced to confront mortality through an act of violence which he cannot forget. The film examines war with vigor and insight; it thankfully forgoes the rabble-rousing slap-in-the-face politics of In the Valley of Elah for a film about family, patriotism and the human cost of war.

*** out of ****

An Education - (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

An Education would be passable enough, were it not for the utterly strained narrative drum it beats again and again throughout. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old living in London. She dreams of attending Oxford. Or, at least, her father (Alfred Molina) does. One afternoon, her poor, closeted-in life sees a bit of light: a 30’s-something man (Peter Sarsgaard) offers her a chance to get out of dreary London and see the world. Concerts, parties, Paris and more. Naturally, however, this new life isn’t as wonderful as it seems. Sarsgaard is actually a liberal, free-thinking thief, nabbing valuable works of art from little old ladies who don’t know the difference. Jenny frowns, but carries on, hoping she, too, may be able to be more like her new friends. Then, the inevitable steps follow: she decides to end her pursuits of Oxford and get married, only to discover Sarsgaard has a secret past she’s been unaware of. The women of her all-girls school get to shout “we told you so,” and Jenny realizes, rather quickly, that it is, indeed, best to stay in school. The end. Aside from the gorgeous photography and solid acting, An Education is but a heavy-handed exploit of one girl’s growth as a woman. Thus, the literal title means not only an academic education, but life, as well. Once Jenny becomes educated in the harshness of love and abandoning the norm, she’s scared back into pursuing the very existence her parents desired for her, only with, perhaps, a bit more perception. Were Lone Scherfig’s film a bit more contemplative about Jenny’s choices, An Education could have been, at most, somewhat insightful. But, because it views institutionalized education as an absolute good, nothing ever materializes to question a career path now assumed by nearly every young person who desires success.

** out of ****

A Serious Man - (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

The Coen brothers’ latest may be their most opaque, autobiographical and bleak to date. It concerns a 1967 Minnesotan Physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life begins to crumble around him following a blackmail scheme from a student, his wife leaving him for an older friend and his brother’s run-ins with police. The small narrative fields enormous questions, primarily the absurdity of life. They insert small parables (including a fascinating prologue) to illustrate the madness Larry cannot comprehend. As usual, the overwhelming “seriousness’ of the material is treated with the bros deft eye for black comedy. Clearly, they understand the humor in the absurdity, which is, more or less, what they’re entire filmmaking careers have been founded upon. But A Serious Man has a certain degree of poignancy as well. The closing image of the film only literalizes what has proceeded. If the film, as a whole, doesn’t feel nearly as powerful as the individual sequences, it’s but a minor quibble for a film so richly philosophical and damned entertaining.

*** out of ****

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar - (James Cameron, 2009)

That James Cameron’s long-awaited, +12 years-in-the-making, sci-fi extravaganza Avatar is one of the worst films of the year comes as a bit of a shock given the massive amount of hype, innovative filmmaking technology and visual wonderment on display. Make no mistake: the film dazzles, especially in 3D, with elaborate vistas and aerial land masses, particularly in the film’s several action/battle sequences. Nevertheless, the awe of the fictional Pandora wears off rather quickly, given it has not only an incredibly putrid narrative backing, but also a politically retroactive subtext, concurrent with the worst type of racial and political profiling. Essentially, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes part of an indigenous tribe in 2154 called the Na’vi (insipidly close to “native”) through a new form of technology, allowing him to look, walk and assimilate into the population, in search of a precious, valuable rock scattered throughout the land. In doing so, he falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and once he learns of his military’s intent to wipe out the Na’vi and use the land for themselves, sides with the indigenous peoples, leading them into a climactic battle. The entire tone of Cameron’s narrative is problematic; he treats the Na’vi as noble savages, clearly meant to evoke Native Americans through the scenario and their physicality – he allows only black and Native American actors to voice them – and salvages these people only through the endeavors of a fallen white soldier. It’s Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or any number of early Westerns which treat foreign peoples with such indignity. On top of this, the film has an incredibly anti-war, anti-military agenda. Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) plays like a cartoon modernization of Custer; he has several distinguished scars on his face and vanquishes Na’vi life as easily as he bench presses 300 pounds. No better is his subordinate Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who spews out lines like “if we throw a stick on their land it’s bound to land on something sacred.” It’s stereotyping of the worst sort; even more insulting, however, is the hard-on Cameron has for military weaponry, aircrafts and badassery. He shoots machine-guns and muscle-bound marines with slo-mo precision, aestheticizing the Military Industrial Complex he supposedly so vehemently opposes. On top of this, the film not once addresses the implications of a world 150 years into the future, especially when its characters speak in such a banal, Bushian manner. Quaritch says at one point: “We’re going to fight terror with terror.” This kind of familiar rhetoric makes a geekish, sci-fi mockery of a serious discussion on war, as this year’s The Hurt Locker, Brothers and The Messenger have so eloquently done. The irony punches Cameron square-in-the-jaw, but he misses it; he’s made a film utilizing the most innovative technology available, with a narrative whose political and racial understandings are positively retroactive and nonexistent. In addition, the film bores. Sequences lag on as Cameron lingers on Pandora's beauty and, thus, lingers on himself. His fascination with the Na’vi’s tribal rituals and his own made up world makes any coherent allegory instantly dissipate. Is the film a sci-fi retelling of The New World and, if so, what does that mean? Is it meant to say something about the human cost of wartime practices? Avatar is too busy painting a pretty picture to be concerned with such adult questions.

* out of ****

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Limits of Control - (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

Locating his Jean-Pierre Melville side, Jarmusch's latest works best as an interesting failure. Isaach De Bankole occupies his specter, a silent assassin traveling through Spain on different assignments. Essentially a Kafkaesque tale with its inescapable circularity, the pretension in the disjointed philosophy isn't so much the problem as is the creaky explication via inserted characters. Most annoying is a blond Tilda Swinton who babbles about cinema preferences and "The Lady from Shanghai" or that each encounter has the same two or three bits of wisdom to impart. Jarmusch also can't help but pound out his meta-cinema intentions, having De Bankole constantly staring at works of art, then reversing the look, implying many layers of art and reality. Nevertheless, the structural experimentation never bores and small bits of business (De Bankole must have two individual espressos rather than a double) lend it a quiet fascination. It's total disinterest in narrative tension or impending action sequences doesn't particularly make it any more watchable, though the complete restraint of Jarmusch in this regard is impressive.

**1/2 out of ****

Monday, December 7, 2009

Weekend Predictions (12/11-13)

1. The Princess and the Frog - 27.3 Million - +3600%
2. The Blind Side - 12.8 Million - -36%
3. Invictus - 10.9 Million - NEW
4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 7.1 Million - -54%
5. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 5.8 Million - -25%
6. Brothers- 5.5 Million - -42%
7. Armored - 4.3 Million - -44%
8. 2012 - 3.5 Million - -47%
9. Old Dogs - 3.4 Million - -50%
10. Up in the Air - 2 Million - +81%

Disney's first animated film to feature a black princess will win the weekend with ease, potentially closing in on 30M. The new Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, should open in the low double digits, though it could go lower if audiences aren't ready for another sports drama (this time South African rugby) so soon after The Blind Side. Up in the Air expands to around 50 theaters this weekend and may go as high as 2m.

Next week: the most expensive film of the year -- Avatar -- also, the Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com Did You Here About the Morgans?

Adaptation - (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Nevermind Rob Marshall's upcoming Nine. Spike Jonze's Adaptation is the 8 1/2 of the decade, simultaneously encompassing art, life and evolution in the most delirious of packages. Here's a film that makes self-loathing cool again -- Charlie Kaufman, lampooning his own neurosis makes for hilarious, but profound filmmaking as played by Nic Cage, who has seldom been better; his back and forths with his brother (himself) demonstrate an actor, known for his unrestrained madness, exhibiting utter calm and certainty. It wouldn't be too hyperbolic to call this his best work. Adaptation signals the type of eccentric, intelligent filmmaking often shyed away from. It's messy, esoteric and one big in-joke for the Hollywood process, but its characters (Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep specifically) signal something much larger about life's persistent uncertainty: doubt, regret, pain and loss. The comedy hinges on how much you find Hollywood self-satirization funny, but the gravitas remain universal.

A

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Films that Bite: Five great vampire movies for any netflix queue


Here is a piece done for THE CAROLINIAN, on the greatest vampire movies ever made.

BEST VAMPIRE MOVIES

Precious: Based on the novel PUSH by Sapphire

I wrote a review on Precious for THE CAROLINIAN. Here it is:

PRECIOUS

Monday, November 23, 2009

Box Office Predictions (11/25--11/29)

1. The Princess and the Frog - 27.3 Million - +3600%
2. The Blind Side - 12.8 Million - -36%
3. Invictus - 10.9 Million - NEW
4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 7.1 Million - -54%
5. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 5.8 Million - -25%
6. Brothers- 5.5 Million - -42%
7. Armored - 4.3 Million - -44%
8. 2012 - 3.5 Million - -47%
9. Old Dogs - 3.4 Million - -50%
10. Up in the Air - 2 Million - +81%

Disney's first animated film to feature a black princess will win the weekend with ease, potentially closing in on 30M. The new Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, should open in the low double digits, though it could go lower if audiences aren't ready for another sports drama (this time South African rugby) so soon after The Blind Side. Up in the Air expands to around 50 theaters this weekend and may go as high as 2m.

Next week: the most expensive film of the year -- Avatar -- also, the Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com Did You Here About the Morgans?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Box Office Predictions (11/20--11/22)

1. The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 137.3 Million - NEW
2. 2012 - 30 Million - -54%
3. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 18.5 Million - -17%
4. The Blind Side - 13.9 Million - NEW
5. Planet 51 - 12.7 Million - NEW
6. Precious- 10.7 Million - +182%
7. Couples Retreat - 2.6 Million - -39%
8. The Men Who Stare at Goats - 2.4 Million - -59%
9. Law Abiding Citizen - 2.2 Million - -41%
10. Michael Jackson's This Is It - 1.8 Million - -64%

Any weekend where a movie has a chance to break box office records is an interesting weekend. That's the case for the vomit inducing The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which definitely has a chance at breaking The Dark Knight's opening day. It's weekend may be a bigger challenge; yet, if the rabid tween fans go back for 2nds, 3rds and 4ths before the weekend is out, it has a chance.

Elsewhere, The Blind Side and Planet 51 look to scrounge up whatever's left from Twilight's devouring. Sandra Bullock's name should be enough to make TBS a relative success, but Planet 51 will remain overshadowed by the other films, as well as A Christmas Carol.

Next week is a 5-dayer: Old Dogs, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Road and Ninja Assassin

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Box Office Predictions (11/13-11/15)

1. 2012 - 59.8 Million - NEW
2. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 18.3 Million - -39%
3. Michael Jackson's This Is It - 7.9 Million - -40%
4. The Men Who Stare at Goats - 7.4 Million - -42%
5. Precious- 6.4 Million - +350%
6. The Fourth Kind - 5.7 Million - -53%
7. Paranormal Activity - 4.7 Million - -46%
8. Couples Retreat - 5 Million - -18%
9. Law Abiding Citizen - 4.3 Million - -29%
10. The Box - 4.1 Million - -46%
---
*** Pirate Radio - 1.1 Million - NEW

Unfortunately, Roland Emmerich is back. Equally unfortunate, is that audiences give a damn. Expect his disaster masturbation called 2012 to make close to 60 million.

Pirate Radio opens in 900 theaters and may struggle to hit 1 million. The real story is Precious, which will expand to 200 theaters. If it hits on all cylinders like last weekend, as much as 7 million is possible, though it will likely be a shade under that mark.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Box Office Predictions (11/06-11/08)

1. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 29.8 Million - NEW
2. The Fourth Kind - 12.9 Million - NEW
3. The Box - 11.1 Million - NEW
4. Paranormal Activity - 10.5 Million - -36%
5. The Men Who Stare at Goats - 9.3 Million - NEW
6. Michael Jackson's This Is It - 8.8 Million - -62%
7. Law Abiding Citizen - 4.1 Million - -44%
8. Couples Retreat - 3.8 Million - -41%
9. Where the Wild Things Are - 2.4 Million - -59%
10. Astro Boy - 1.9 Million - -46%

It's Christmas on the first weekend in November...or something like that. It seems to get earlier every year, but that doesn't mean there won;t be takers. Disney's A Christmas Carol is a huge holiday vehicle, utilizing 3D and motion capture animation in yet another Robert Zemeckis film of such a nature. Jim Carrey will draw in those weary to hear the age old tale yet again, but its haul may not be as frontloaded as some might expect. Like its predecessor, The Polar Express, it may build slow and finish strong. That said, 30M is still likely.

Otherwise, two more horror films enter the marketplace, though each is of a different beast. The Fourth Kind looks to be a shameless attempt to capitalize on footage claimed to be "real" by the advertisements for it. This sort of horror has done well, so around 12M seems likely for it. In addition, The Box the third film from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales)looks to utilize a more old-fashioned scare machine to scare up bucks. The cast is nice (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), but the trailers and promos are confusing and the timing is off considering the crowded marketplace. Around 10M looks right. Lastly, The Men Who Stare at Goats will earn some money off of its cast alone and may key into the same vibe that made Burn After Reading a hit last fall. 9M is likely in order.

Next week: the excruciating looking 2012 will likely be a smash success and, on a much smaller scale, the Philip Seymour Hoffman starer Pirate Radio.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Horrorathon Day 31: HALLOWEEN: H20 (Steve Miner, 1998)

It's a shame to end a horror movie fest with a mediocre movie, but that's exactly what I've done. The sad thing is, though, that Halloween: H20 remains the best modern reincarnation of Michael Myers; this is by no means impressive, when the competition is as rigorous as a Busta Rhymes sequel and a couple of Rob Zombie migraines. Perhaps I'm selling H20 short; it's a decent little film, clearly meant to hit each and every narrative beat that the first two Scream films did, and it's nice to see that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), twenty years later, still can't sleep at night.

The script here, isn't bad. One wishes the studio had gotten a bit more of a stylistic director than the "eh" Steve Miner to helm Michael's comeback. Some more interesting choices could have been made visually, but as is, the rather standard mise-en-scene is functional. The slow burn works pretty well too, giving each character a chance to form a little development before being knocked off. This includes the debut role of Josh Hartnett as Strode's son, Michelle Williams as his girlfriend and LL Cool J as an aspiring writer of erotic novels, who currently works as a security guard to pay the bills. There's some ok stuff between them, but all of this is just filler until the last 15 minutes, in which Strode and Myers face off. It's executed well, in the desolate halls of an evacuated private school. Yet even this is just a build up to the final scene, where an axe-wielding Curtis finally puts Myers to rest. Or not, as sequels have shown. "You can't kill the Boogeyman," is a line from the original Halloween and hopefully that rings true for the horror film as well. It's been a fun 31 days. Thanks to all those who've read and responded. I look forward to part two, about 11 months from now.

Horrorathon Day 30: CARRIE (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Brian De Palma, as well regarded as he is, remains one of the most underrated American directors in the last half of the 20th century. De Palma had a philosophy about how to survive in Hollywood: "Make one for me, then make one for them." Carrie was one for them, but like all great directors, the project quickly turned into one for "me." It's, arguably, the greatest film De Palma made in the 1970's, and surely one of the seminal horror classics of that era. The most impressive thing about the film, though, is how much of its value comes purely from De Palma's sense of visual storytelling, rather than from the the solid, but admittedly standard script. Look at the opening sequence, which on the page surely read: "Girls getting dressed after gym class." But in a De Palma film, the mere act is literally transcended by a cosmic grace; time slows down, the post-pubescent grins linger and the undiscovered sexuality of the titular character comes forth with the presence of blood. The sequence is astonishing, but it truly is in service to both the establishment of a filmic world and a supplement to the characters and their behaviors and fears. De Palma is the rare filmmaker whose style over substance approach doesn't lose the humanity of his characters in the process (Hitchcock and Godard are also among the select few).

De Palma always wears the Hitchcock influence on his sleeve, which is no secret to anyone that watched but five minutes of any of his films. He's always framing characters within the frame, often while the character in the foreground has their back turned. This further indicates a self-contained world, where individual characters are caught listening, peeking or wondering. It's utterly self-reflexive, at its most basic function. The characters of the cinema construct their environment with a cinematic aesthetic. Even though filmmaking is never mentioned by them, somehow they are cognizant of this method of seeing. So, when Sue (Amy Irving) "sees" the bucket of blood lingering above Carrie's head, time slows down. She turns the corner, slowly realizing the horror that may spew forth if that bucket is dumped. The filmmaking reflects her inner turmoil. Then, when it's dumped, time speeds up. Now the point of view is with Carrie. The screen splits to mirror her fractured state, which has finally passed the point of no return. Her vision is coated in red, the monochrome indicating the vengeance she wants to enact. These are seamless techniques which turn Stephen King's original vision from banal horror to profound visceral masterwork.

De Palma's handiwork would be enough to make Carrie the great film that it is, but that it also features a half dozen iconic performances makes it truly timeless. Of course, Sissy Spacek plays the lonely, troubled Carrie White and it's likely the performance she's most remembered for today. Rightfully so; she's a fearless performer, that can hone in on the innocence that makes Carrie a sincerely pitiful character. But she has spunk too; she's resilient and Spacek makes that transformation all the more horrifying through that ability to hit so many varied notes. Then, there's Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles and John Travolta, four of the coolest actors from the 1975-1985 De Palma period. Irving went on to make the equally great The Fury (1978), with De Palma, an her performance as Sue brilliantly contrasts the moral emptiness of Allen's and Travolta's characters. The film is able to hit so many beats with the characters, primarily because the performers are mesmerizing enough to not make a departure from Carrie a step down. It also makes their deaths all the more climactic. Then, there's P.J. Soles, who's now more known for her role in Halloween (1978), but has a memorable bit part as the ball cap wearing Norma. But, if you talk about performances in Carrie, it has to begin and end with Piper Laurie, whose Jesus freak mother is likely one of the ten scariest characters ever committed to film. The hammy Southern intonation, the frizzled hair, the searing eyes. Spacek's awkward character is sold by such a monstrous mother, whose past sexual fragility and betrayal has driven her to God and thus made the natural yearnings of her daughter a living hell.

The final scene between Carrie and her mother, ranks with the greatest De Palma ever filmed and thus ranks with the greatest of all film sequences. If you haven't seen the film, well, then you must behold its power, grace, horror, beauty -- sublimity for your self. I fear any attempted description would not do it justice and I am admittedly not capable of relaying its power on all of these levels. But don't get it twisted, it's a masterful piece of filmmaking, fit to end an equally magnificent horror film, one of the greatest ever made.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The 20 Greatest Horror Movies Ever Made

Happy Halloween everyone!

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
2. Carrie - (Brian De Palma, 1976)
3. Suspiria - (Dario Argento, 1977)
4. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - (John McNaughton, 1986)
5. The Last House on the Left - (Wes Craven, 1971)
6. Halloween - (John Carpenter, 1978)
7. Night of the Living Dead - (George A. Romero, 1968)
8. Dawn of the Dead - (George A. Romero, 1979)
9. Videodrome - (David Cronenberg, 1983)
10. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
11. The Shining - (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
12. Freaks - (Tod Browning, 1932)
13. The Innocents - (Jack Clayton, 1961)
14. Frankenstein - (James Whale, 1931)
15. The Slumber Party Massacre - (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)
16. Nosferatu - (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
17. Re-Animator - (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street - (Wes Craven, 1984)
19. Nosferatu: The Vampyr - (Werner Herzog, 1979)
20. Black Christmas - (Bob Clark, 1974)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Horrorathon Day 29: THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (Ti West, 2009)

Almost too late to make much of a mark, Ti West's horror homage The House of the Devil arrives on the back end of a decade of spoofs and tributes and throwbacks and callbacks and post-post-modernism, that I fear it's astuteness will be overlooked. Those who do dismiss what West has done here would be remiss, since his nasty little film evokes the dread of post-Vietnam horror, if it's short on those films political subtext. It isn't quite the best horror film of the year either (that honor belongs to Jaume Collet-Serra's grossly overlooked Orphan) but what it does, it does exceedingly well, which is remain a small, effective chiller that reserves its real bite for the last 15 minutes.

West understands that horror must first be grounded in a real world before it can become frightening. That's precisely what he does. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a struggling college sophomore, looking to move out of her dorm room and away from her sexually promiscuous roommate. But in order to do that, she needs some cash. Insert crux of plot: she answers an add for a babysitter, whose offer ultimately isn;t what it appeared, but given the creepy old man (Tom Noonan) is willing to pay $400 for Samantha to watch after his sickly mother for an evening, she reluctantly accepts. This all happens around the 30 minute mark, as The House of the Devil is taking its time, building slowly to the payoff. The irony is, an effective horror film makes the preceding material just as interesting, if not more so than the horror. It does just that; Samantha's economic struggles are confronted with a moral dilemma and the necessity she has for money trumps any sort of moral or precautionary thought process. She has, in a sense, already sold her soul to the devil.

The film is sly too; subtle insertions that will later be recalled for plot purposes are important and deftly placed. Yet as the film relates to its roots, it isn't overt in such intentions. Surely, there are freeze frames during the opening credits and the lettering is straight from The Last House on the Left, but that's about all the film explicitly shares in common with such predecessors. The importance here is the narrative structure and character, as well as a few nicely executed sequences to ratchet up the stakes. Hell quite literally breaks loose in the last 15 minutes, but even then The House of the Devil doesn't loose its cool; understated rather than overt, the final image/reveal reflects the tone and philosophy of West's filmmaking; insinuate rather than explicate.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Horrorathon Day 28: STEPFATHER II (Jeff Burr, 1989)

The best thing about a horror sequel is that it can take the original idea and endlessly multiply the inanity. In the case of Stepfather II, this is done organically instead of through easy camp. Locked in an insane asylum since after murdering a family more than a year ago, Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) seems to have vanquished his insanity. Yeah right. After stabbing a doctor through the back of his neck and beating a guard with his own nightstick, he's out into the world, seeking a new family to settle in with.

The aforementioned form of the sequel delves deeper into Blake's obsession with the old-fashioned family. That is, it has fun with his psychosis, but the lampooning remains within the confines of its filmic world. This is how spoof should function. Not through banal one-liners or knowing acknowledgement of its own self-awareness. It should address the obvious in that it is a film, but provide a well-constructed narrative in which to play it out. Stepfather II does this quite well; see Blake's disgust with whiny, promiscuous or working women. Also, after getting engaged, he insists upon waiting until the wedding night to have sex! Awesome, right? It's awesome because of the understated political subtext. Progressive ideals vs. conservatism. Conservatism is inherently misogynist and leads to illogical primitive reaction to difference. That is to say, with violence. The sophistication of Stepfather II will go unnoticed by those who would rather focus on its "stupidity," but true cinema lovers will relish all of its seedy, adept glory.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horrorathon Day 27: ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

The most controversial film of the year is little more than what any Lars Von Trier opus is; an exercise in massive ego stroking and blithe, indulgent misanthropy. As Armond White said in his review of Antichrist, "Von Trier's never made a good film." Yeah, spot on Armond. From the formalistic masturbation of The Element of Crime to the...formalistic masturbation of Breaking the Waves, each film from his oeuvre
has no real interest in its human subjects. Like another comparable nihilist - Jared Hess - the intent of the form is undermined by the horrendous circumstances Von Trier seems to enjoy seeing his characters writhe in. Pain, despair, bodily malfunction, self-mutilation; they're all part of his superficial game. He is a filmmaker whom deserves no real notice or consideration. His films become controversial because of such easy muck-raking, like the title of the film. What's most damning of Von Trier, though, is that he has nothing to actually voice or say in any of his narratives, especially Antichirst, which plays more like a tonally smug, thematically barren wasteland, with no other purpose than for Von Trier to see if he can, yet again, one-up himself.

So He (Willem Defoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) venture into the woods, attempting to confront the fears of She, who deems the woods her ultimate phobia. This follows a black & white, slo-mo prologue, in which the pair, fucking, neglect She's child, who falls out the window to his death. In these woods, there seems to be no definable sense of reality for either character. Von Trier wishes to suggest that the goings on exist in some meta form, as if an Edenic paradise has sprouted, yet contains things which transgress nature; this includes deformed animals, the abnormal falling of acorns and periods of psychological trickery. The latter is a solid example of Von Trier's nastiness. She, grappling with the death of her son, hears a cry, but can't place it. She searches, the cry evoking her still unconquered grief. The scene ultimately comes to nothing. It's followed by similar scenes, which showcase bodily pain and mental anguish. And that Von Trier dresses these going on up in a pretty, saturated aesthetic, only further proves his disinterest, perhaps even ignorance to what constitutes artistic merit, as it relates to humanity. Von Trier is a faux-humanist, who places his despondent characters in scenarios of hardship and pain, but ultimately just exploits it to prove no point and only highlight how proud he is of the shots he composes.

The particulars of Antichrist aren't even that interesting, because it is all coated in nastiness, disgust. Whether or not Lars Von Trier actually hates humanity is unknown, but that he ends this film by dedicating it to Andrei Tarkovsky, should put to rest the myth that Von Trier actually has any true chops as a competent, profound filmmaker.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - (Spike Jonze, 2009)

I wrote a review on Where the Wild Things Are for THE CAROLINIAN. Here it is:

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Box Office Predictions (10/30-11/01)

1. Michael Jackson's This Is It - 37 Million - NEW
2. Paranormal Activity - 15.6 Million - -26%
3. Law Abiding Citizen - 7.6 Million - -39%
4. Where the Wild Things Are - 7.1 Million - -49%
5. Couples Retreat - 6.7 Million - -37%
6. Saw VI - 5.5 Million - -61%
7. Astro Boy - 3.8 Million - -43%
8. The Stepfather - 3.7 Million - -41%
9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - 3.7 Million - -31%
10. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant - 3 Million - -53%

Michael Jackson's This Is It is the only new opener this weekend, with almost no competition to speak of. The only question regarding it is just how large it will open. Producers were estimating a whopping 200M in its first five days, but the sell-outs thus far have not indicated such a ridiculous figure. It seems to be a case of overhype, though it should still do reasonably well. Expect around 40M for the 3-day, 65M for the 5-day. After the hilarious bomb of Saw VI, MJ will likely spice things up a bit.

Next week: Disney's A Christmas Carol, the real-life creeper The Fourth Kind, the Richard Kelly helmed thriller The Box and the unfortunately titled The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Horrorathon Day 26: THE STEPFATHER (Joseph Ruben, 1987)

The Stepfather is a great genre horror film. It has all the components to meet that qualification, namely a delightfully terrorizing/psychotic performance by Terry O'Quinn, and a great addition to the horror discourse on the "family," begun by such classics as The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If The Stepfather is slightly lacking in the latter department, it compensates with dynamic little scenes between characters, hilarious bits of business and a general sense of the death of pastoral America.

An unfortunate PG-13 remake (unseen by me) no doubt homogenizes and tarnishes the sharp genre tropes and a genuine feeling of the transition of societal mores. Relish a campy, but heartfelt scene where the psychotic Quinn sentimentally watches a young family, who greet the father as he arrives home from work. It has an air of surrealism, his illogical and idealistic family hierarchy now usurped by unruly kids, transgressing boyfriends and distrustful wives. His lament is met, though, with unblinking brutality, not realizing that his actions equally go against the grain of communal trust. To read it as a Reagan-era parable may stretch it (but weren't all mid-80's flicks just that?) but whichever way one views it, The Stepfather is truly worth seeking out.

Horrorathon Day 25: CAT PEOPLE (Paul Schrader, 1982)

Sometimes, a remake is a useful, even vital component of filmic vernacular, as it is able to delve into or explore an issue or aspect of the original film, that was hindered by the production code. Paul Schrader's Cat People is a film like that, expounding upon the sexual repression and fear implicated in Tourneur's original. In full eroticized mode, Schrader spares no opportunity to have his actors shot mid-coitus, implicating their atavistic primality. Nastassja Kinski is game for the necessity of modernity, the explicit sexualization of the the monstrous feminine.

Like all of Scharder's films, however, other interesting components creep in. The primary villain, or the one trying to turn Kinski, is her brother (Malcolm McDowell). This inclusion is, quite obviously, an allusion to early 80's zeitgeist and fear, of homosexuality and AIDS. The frail, but masculine essence of McDowell's performance communicates this, but it's Scharder's abstract sense of plot mechanism that makes him most effective. It's a strange film, but a pretty great one, on nearly every level. As with all of the 1970's American virtuosos, Schrader commands the frame with utter precision. There will be no knock on his inability to present the material visually. Where one could find fault, is in the resistance the film has to being solely a genre picture. Its suggestion of such themes and the refusal to answer them with an easy conclusion or finitude, is absent. Schrader's never made a film to equal those he penned for Scorsese, but he is an even more esoteric, hard to grasp filmmaker. In a way, it makes him more intriguing, though his desire to not conform whatsoever, relegates his work as more fascinating than excellent.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Horrorathon Day 24: CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

Female sexuality is a dangerous, scary thing. Or, at least, that's the premise of Jacques Tourneur's genre-making masterpiece Cat People, whose Val Lewton produced films of the 1940's helped to solidify horror as the premier venue for allegory. The film is just that; an acerbic assessment of a cultural zeitgeist, holding a fear or concern now thought to be exclusively expressed in film noir. What such genre summarization fails to take notice of, though, is that such labels are applied ex post facto. Phenomenology defies genre or style.

In the case of Cat People, the marvelous directing talents of Tourneur are on full display; any fan of cinematography must begin with his films (ok, Karl Freund is the starting point, but I digress). The compositional intensity is matched by camera moves that only suggest violence and trauma. There's little to none in terms of "scare scenes" in Cat People, though it isn't short on tension. Fashion artist Irena (Simone Simon) is befriended by sexually interested naval construction designer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They are eventually married; but she remains reticent about her sexual feelings and desires. Then, when Oliver falls in love with a woman in his office, she becomes jealous, deceitful, fierce. The brilliance of Tourneur's film, which could easily have slipped into clunky misogyny, is that it transcends that trap by making gynophobia not the point, but a subject for thorough examination. Anxiety of female co-workers, sexual equality and revolution, all posed a growing threat to the hegemonic culture. The feline, the feminine figure of the cat, with her clawing, scratching phallic substitute, is the perfect atavistic figure to portray such uncertainty.

Horrorathon Day 23: PIECES (Juan Piquer Simon, 1982)

I will update this post later in the week, with a link to a write-up I've done for this week's issue of THE CAROLINIAN.

Here is that link:

PIECES

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Horrorathon Day 22: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (J. Lee Thompson, 1981)

Happy Birthday to Me is something rare; a slasher film helmed by a director at the end of his long, successful career. J. Lee Thompson is man behind films like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). Gregory Peck once said the he trusted but four directors: Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, William Wyler and Thompson. It’s wonderful company to hold and the mark of an experienced filmmaker is on display early in Happy Birthday to Me; fluid camera movements, bits of business for the characters, under rather than overstatement of the material, etc. He even employs the ever reliable Glenn Ford in a small, but significant role. He’s clearly a gifted man. The question becomes, though, is Happy Birthday to Me a significant film because of it.

The simplest answer is no, mainly because Thompson isn’t able to transcend the typical subject matter; some filmmakers can do this. Men like Seijun Suzuki and Douglas Sirk could take what would be trite and uninspired in lesser hands and turn it into something memorable, if not often a masterpiece, in the case of Sirk. Thompson is competent, surely, but not in such a league. He does realize the fun of the genre he’s in, however. After all, in a movie called Happy Birthday to Me, someone’s face must eventually fall into a cake, right? Right. The narrative involves childhood trauma, psychological torment and gruesome murders. All aspersed with a tinge of humor, of course. Excellent death scenes include a weight lifter and his nuts, as well as the infamous shish kebab. The biggest issue here is the circumstances surrounding these scenes. They aren’t very strong. Thompson is at his best when he can indulge the macabre and he’s able to do it just enough, which makes Happy Birthday to Me largely watchable, if only sporadically interesting.

Horrorathon Day 21: PHANTASM II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)

The best thing about watching any film from the past, is that you inevitably uncover influences they have had on contemporary cinema. It struck me while watching Phantasm II, a pretty awesome flick, that Zombieland is essentially the same film, just a much lamer version. In Phantasm II, Mike (James LeGros) seeks vengeance on The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) after the destruction of the first film; he lies to gain his release from a mental asylum, and it's the sort of film that doesn't ask to be reasoned, meaning his release is just a means to get him back in the The Tall Man's pursuits. He teams up with older friend Reggie (Reggie Banister). There's a standard scene where they build an arsenal, with chainsaws, quadruple barrel-shotguns, grenades and a custom-made flamethrower. It's a typical scene for an on-the-road action/horror film, but then this film is all about set pieces, not any coherent tone sustained throughout.

And it is indeed the set pieces that make the film worthwhile, given its lack of significance on any other level. This includes The Tall Man's big flying killer balls (does he have a patent on those things?) which deftly impale, suck and drain brain juice, or blood. For some reason, The Tall Man has yellow blood. It's that kind of film; if you get hung up on the particulars, which don't really mean anything or denounce it for its genre elements, such as playful brutality and exploitation, then it could be pretentiously discarded (Ebert, I'm looking at you). But if a stick isn't lodged too far in your ass, you'll have great fun with Phantasm II.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Horrorathon Day 20: THE PROWLER (Joseph Zito, 1981)

As a slasher film, The Prowler is notable for something rare to the genre; restraint. Not in the sense of gore - there's more than enough to go around. Yet it isn't so concerned with amounting an overwhelming body count. It takes its time, letting characters truly wonder and discover the terror that a madman has wreaked. In this sense, it has a certain degree of sophistication that many of its contemporaries do not. It's interesting, but at times also stagnant to the narrative at hand. The slasher film almost necessitates a zippier tone (unless we're talking a director like John Carpenter, who has the skills necessary to prolong the inevitable without venturing into tedium). Zito is talented too, but he doesn't have near the tricks up his sleeve that Carpenter's Halloween did, so the delay is just that at times.

Nevertheless, the set pieces are amazing. The credits reveal none other than Tom Savini as the man responsible, and one wouldn't have it any other way. There is a top of head through bottom of jaw impaling, two separate shotgun blasts with exit wounds, a slit throat with a 12-inch blade and an exploding head to end all exploding heads. The difference between The Prowler and Eyes of a Stranger
is that the former has a sincerity to it, injected by the soul-baring direction of Zito. The latter is a manufactured studio project meant to capitalize on and exploit those desiring more subversive material. Gruesome, nasty and awesome, The Prowler is well worth the wait.

Box Office Predictions (10/23-10/25)

1. Saw VI - 25.3 Million - NEW
2. Paranormal Activity - 22.6 Million - +115%
3. Where the Wild Things Are - 17.3 Million - -47%
4. Astro Boy - 12.4 Million - NEW
5. Law Abiding Citizen - 12.2 Million - -42%
6. Couples Retreat - 9.5 Million - -45%
7. Amelia - 6.1 Million - NEW
8. The Stepfather - 5.6 Million - -52%
9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - 5.4 Million - -33%
10. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant - 5.1 Million - NEW

Two horror films will duke it out for the top spot and Saw VI is likely to retain most of its former staying power. Expect a slight dip from the previous entry, though one can only hope that it sees a more significant nosedive. Paranormal Activity will have a shot at #1, but in just under 2000 theaters, it likely won't unless Saw mania has ceased. Less notable, Astro Boy, Amelia and Cirque du Freak are likely to open in a non-stellar way. Except CDF to outright bomb, as it struggles to amount a $1500 per theater average. Amelia may have an impressive average, though it could just as easily struggle.

Next week: Michael Jackson's This Is It will rule as the only new opener. The only question is, just how big it can be.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Horrorathon Day 19: THE PIT (Lew Lehman, 1981)

Not quite a children's film, though its lead character is indeed a child, The Pit
would make one hell of a double bill with Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are; they are essentially the same movie. Unable to deal with the lack of attention and care he feels he is entitled to, a young boy lashes out and ventures off to a land where he can be himself. Only in the case of The Pit, the imaginary land and beasts are flesh-feeding demons, who need the boy's teddy bear to telepathically communicate their needs of sustenance.

Ok, so The Pit isn't the endeavor into the psychology of children that Wild Things is. The success of it, though, hinges on the awkward child lead Jamie, played with hilarious incompetence/sincerity by Sammy Snyders. There's a formidable relationship between him and his babysitter, who thinks she's capable of handling the friendless kid. Jamie is curious about the female body and tries to sneak peeks at her while in the shower. His innocent peeking would be harmless if he didn't have a demented teddy bear with ulterior motives. The demons in Jamie's pit ultimately amass an impressive body count, as he draws all of his unliked neighbors/friends to be devoured. The narrative is ultimately inane, but the simplicity of the stupidity is completely charming and The Pit has more than its share of creepy laughs.

Horrorathon Day 18: MAD MONSTER PARTY (Jules Bass, 1967)

After seeing Where the Wild Things Are this weekend, I was reminded of just how dumbed down children's films have become; here was a movie that didn't have a single pop culture reference and really honed in on the emotional complexity of a child, even if, on the whole, it was a bit too self-satisfied in the process. Here's also a film that demonstrates that a movie made for kids doesn't have to seem as if it was made by them. Mad Monster Party is a decidedly goofy, silly - but entirely intelligent and fun seasonal effort, that could be thouroughly enjoyed by kids, adults and stoners alike.

Baron Boris von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) is ready to retire from his position as head of the monster council, which includes Dracula, The Invisible Man and The Mummy, among others. The best character in the film, though is Felix Flankin (Allen Swift) the young, outrageously incompetent nephew Frankenstein wishes to follow him. Swift voices Felix like a young, nerdy Jimmy Stewart. Everything he does, in combination with the bizarre stop-motion animation, is absolutely hilarious. It's all derived from his behavior and physical awkwardness, not a half-witted pun or one-liner. The monster stuff is great fun too; if you haven't seen this (which I hadn't until now) don't be put off by it potentially being beneath you. It's not; its acerbic comic touch is utterly sophisticated.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Horrorathon Day 17: EYES OF A STRANGER (Ken Wiederhorn, 1981)

It's appropriate in some ways to view Eyes of a Stranger the night after watching My Bloody Valentine; the latter has a playful mean streak that can be enjoyed in terms of its relationship to genre. The former, on the other hand, is the sort of truly misanthropic drivel only capable of coming from a major studio. In an attempt to "class-up" the slasher film, Eyes of a Stranger attempts to provide credible actors, detailed set design and palatable story as a substitute for the low-budget means of its superior counterparts. In doing this, and in needlessly and callously lingering on the exploitation, suffering and death of its killer/rapist's victims, it is the most hollowed sort of horror film.

A typical instance involves the killer, an overweight, glasses wearing, heavy breathing psychopath, calling his victim and bluntly telling them, "I'm going to fuck you/kill you." There's no suspense to this and no reason for it to be presented in this way, other than utterly degrading the victim. The script has an acutely inherrent misogyny as well; the women keep answering the phone when the killer calls, instead of phoning for help or seeking a sharp object. This assumes that they crave such attention, even if it comes at the expense of their lives. Other pointless digressions involve the double murder of a parked couple; after the killer slits a woman's throat, the camera remains to show her, for 15-20 seconds, gargling and choking to death on her own blood. It's just nasty stuff, with no sense of irony whatsoever. It's this type of literal, leadened filmmaking used to exploit an underground film movement and is passed off as part of it; they understand the lyrics, but they don't understand that it's the music which gives the lyrics their gravitas.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in the film, which was her debut role. Note that she plays a blind, deaf victim of childhood trauma. When in doubt about making sure the audience empathizes with a character, go ahead and make her severely handicapped for good measure. It comes as no surprise that the last scene involves the rapist walking around, tormenting the poor helpless girl. Neither is it surprising that the movie is as condescending as to have her nearly get raped, herself, before being rescued in the nick of time. The filmmakers here are tone deaf themselves, completely misunderstanding how and why a slasher is successful and what makes them interesting, on the whole. It isn't such blatant hatred and contempt for the audience that this movie has, that's certain. For a great film that sincerely deals with the psychotic serial killer, see Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But avoid Eyes of a Stranger at all costs, unless you just hate yourself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Horrorathon Day 16: MY BLOODY VALENTINE (George Mihalks, 1981)

To say that the mantra of My Bloody Valentine would be "Fuck Valentine's Day" probably doesn't quite describe its level of contempt. No, it's hatred runs deeper, pissed off at anything resembling mainstream culture and those who embrace it. It's perfect irony that remake culture now runs rampant, commodifying what was once anarchic. Sure, My Bloody Valentine capitalizes on the holiday hook of forbearers like Black Christmas and Halloween, but it unleashes a killer that doesn't mess around. The avenging, pick-axe swinging miner uses his large, but surprisingly maneuverable phallus without the slightest hesitation. It's a mean-spirited movie. Though it's also a rather funny one, particularly when it lingers on two local lawmen, intent to make sure the killer doesn't strike again. It's at once odd and nasty, with abrupt tonal shifts from scene to scene; but it understands the inherent nihilism of the genre its working from. Rarely does a film that's 'shameless' not ring arrogant or ignorant, but the integration of said humor with horrible, horrible killings makes the viewing experience, at the very least, unique.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Horrorathon Day 15: THE INNOCENTS (Jack Clayton, 1961)

Pauline Kael called Jack Clayton's The Innocents, "The best ghost movie I've ever seen." Kael was right; even 48 years after its initial release, no other ghost film springs to mind that has quite the ability to chill. Based on the Henry James novel "The Turn of the Screw," the narrative involves a governess (Deborah Kerr) of two children who begins to suspect a supernatural presence may be lurking around their Victorian mansion. Filmed in lush black and white by Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (as well as utilizing the wide frame with its 2.35.1 format), The Innocents gets its scares the hard, but always scarier way; through the mise-en-scene. Long shots of lurking figures, quick cut away's, super-impositions, a child's humming of a nursery song, chiaroscuro. These are the elements that create real horror, not inane and arbitrary music cues and jump scares.

What makes The Innocents so effective, in addition to visual style, are the implications in the relationship between the children and their governess. She loves the children. No, she really loves the children. They are her sole reason for existence. The dynamic between them grows and develops throughout, culminating in a provocative finale. The suggestions made are an acute exploration of the fragile line between maternal care and possession. The wholly developed narrative allows the visuals to carry such weight; like The Exorcist after it, the combination of a strong, slow-burning story with sharp injections of visceral angst make the horror come to fruition. Hardly a drop of blood is split in The Innocents, and it doesn't need it to frighten. Here's a film likely to satisfy scholars and audiences alike. Perhaps that's the truest sense of a classic genre film.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Horrorathon Day 14: TRICK R' TREAT (Michael Dougherty, 2009)

Trick R' Treat opens with a reverse tracking shot, pulling away from an opening close-up on a jack-o-lantern. It's a nice little homage to Carpenter's Halloween, establishing its credibility not through name-dropping dialogue, but filmmaking suggestive of its influences. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes all too clear that Michael Dougherty's debut not only has no further intention of astute references, it isn't interested in creating any cohesive horror film. Essentially an anthology just out of chronological order, the differing stories overlap, but are never totally separated from the others. It's no wonder either, given its jokey tone and occasionally bizarre narrative, that Warner Bros. chose to send this direct to DVD.

It, like all 'too-cool-for-school' hipster flicks, is solely intent on delivering camp and anything associated with it. Good example: A female teenager, who's later revealed to be a werewolf, comments early on that she "ate some bad Mexican earlier." Yeesh. Such poor...taste does not make successful or worthy camp. Other vignettes involve a slaughtered busload of handicapped kids, an old man who hates Halloween and a dad with more than a few secrets. The playful demeanor allows much of the proceedings to run on fairly painlessly, but rarely (or, rather, never) does Trick r' Treat make any kind of lasting impression. It chugs from story to story, the chronology slowly coming into place, then ends. It's worth a few laughs for its intentional inanity, but deserves no praise for taking such a lackadaisical approach.