Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 15 "Scariest" Movies Since 2000

1. Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2001)
2. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
3. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
4. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008)
5. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2008)
6. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2010)
7. Bug (William Friedkin, 2007)
8. Mad Detective (Johnny To, 2008)
9. Inside (Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury, 2007)
10. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
11. High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2005)
12. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
13. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
14. Audition (Takashi Miike, 2000)
15. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty-Two: Bad Biology (Frank Henenlotter, 2008) -- B+

Bad Biology aka The Girl With the Crazy Pussy aka You Dirty Little Cunt-Bitch-Whore, went relatively unnoticed in its 2008 release (even by a cinephile like myself), because the marketing/product machine has become so large, so looming, that there's no room for a true visionary like Frank Henenlotter, whose entire oeuvre has been marginalized because it exists within the system, to a certain extent, and is a palpable threat to dismantling the "values" of a cinema predicated on maintaining a hegemonic order that never too forcefully deviates from those parameters. Now, I'm not suggesting Henenlotter functions as a part of the system, more that his films suggest genre works gone awry, injected with a subversive tinge, using sex, the body, violence, and the grotesque as a means of over-satiation; Henenlotter is funny and genius because he's refracting Americana, disavowing scopophilia through a Carnivalesque wit - not enough contemporary filmmakers have it.

Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) has a problem: she's a nymphomaniac like no other, she "feeds on orgasms," with needs physical not psychological, she believes "God wants to fuck me." Art, excess, pornography implode amidst sex sequences that evoke jouissance, death/pleasure inseparable, copulation inevitable (Jen also has, let's just say, very active genitalia). Speaking of, Batz (Anthony Sneed) is her unbeknownst soul-mate, struggling with his active, mind-of-its-own cock, which has "troubled" him since he was a tyke (his member seems to deliberately evoke Duane's troubled "little guy" from Basket Case). Reporting on the specifics of the narrative is useless, since Henenlotter's brilliance comes in his spirit, critical but fascinated, disgusted but enamored - ambivalent. Such a film must remain in a "cult" realm, so long as more obvious, literal, and finite fare receives cultural perpetuation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty-One: Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2011) -- C-

Aside from offering an adept tutorial regarding On and Off-screen space, Paranormal Activity 3 provides little to legitimate its "Where's Waldo?" gimmick, as ephemeral as it is cynical, not utilizing its "personal" aesthetic for political means, but merely as an asinine piggy-backing ploy, seemingly oblivious or apathetic to why its domestic terror via home video footage resonates so forcefully with audiences (PA 3 became horror's biggest opener this weekend with a haul of roughly 54M). Not that any of this should surprise considering filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman's previous film, Catfish, equally exploited and remained oblivious to its faux-documentary foolishness, the opposite of self-reflexive, questioning representation by accident rather than through an honorable attempt. Though Catfish could at least offer an interesting case study of ever shrinking lines between (non)fiction, Paranormal Activity 3 merely seeks to fulfill itself as a product of Paramount's ingenious marketing campaign (anchored by a "Bloody Mary" scene which does not appear in the feature, itself).

Moreover, Joost and Schulman prove to be the philistines their debut suggests, in that their interests are so miniscule, so detached from the personal becoming the political, that Paranormal Activity 3 could barely even be called ephemeral, its phantasmagoric pretenses masking retrograde narrative nonsense that literally devolves into haggard old-woman paranoia, without the slightest hint of satire. Expect straight-faced babysitter screams and scared best friend sequences too; Joost and Schulman are embarrassingly prideful about their derivative demeanor, aping from the franchise itself and other films so liberally, but disguised under a suggestion of innovation, that by the film's limp-wristed, "that's it?" conclusion, the stringent odor of consumerist, naif-devised bullshit abounds.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty: They Came Back (Robin Campillo, 2004) -- C-

A thoroughly inert attempt at aristocratic horror, They Came Back attempts to situate itself as worthy of inclusion within the horror genre through its use of "zombies," though these folks look like they were buried yesterday. Essentially, a small French town becomes perplexed when its buried patrons arise from their graves and return, not to feed on the living, but to assimilate back into society. That this is "a zombie flick like no other" should not suggest quality, since director Robin Campillo cannot shake his wholly metaphoric pretensions, not revising genre so much as belittling it. Were he more keyed into the potential satirical dimensions of his narrative (this only sporadically manifests), the literal title could simultaneously dismantle and pay reverence, both to zombie films and social reform. Not interested in cracking much of a smile, Campillo is potentially at his strongest when focusing on smaller relationships, between the dead-come-to-life and their loved ones - but even here, there's a consistent sense of muddied intent and execution, disjointed not to imbue a degree of ambivalence to the proceedings, but seemingly because of an uncertainty or (more likely) unfamiliarity, coupled with an arrogant disdain towards genre filmmaking, in general.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Nineteen: Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kôji Shiraishi, 2007) -- B

With Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, director Kôji Shiraishi doesn't so much make a compelling, intelligent horror film as he does a potentially iconographic one, more impressive in its return-of-the-repressed, towering, massive scissor-wielding slasher than anything the film can muster in terms of thoughtful dialectics. Nevertheless, the latter's deficiencies will only negate filmic pleasure if such criterion are one's sole method of achieving it; in fact, Carved's use of a generic plot and narrative mold almost work in its favor, ultimately, since this is really a horror film for the fans - a new slasher is born. In a small Japanese city, the patrons begin to notice several children disappearing. A few people, having contact with a tall, strange, vengeful woman when they were younger, begin to suspect the figure has returned. The specifics of "why" the figure seeks said retribution is relatively meaningless and Shiraishi treats it as such, instead keeping things lean and more geared towards visual thrills. Of course explicitly linked with A Nightmare on Elm Street (and nowhere near as profound as Craven's film), Shiraishi has fun upping the ante in terms of who's on the chopping block, as well as lingering on the titular slasher, lumbering slowly forward, scissors-up, eyes wide open. In a few particular sequences, the film proves adept simply in terms of genre, understanding the slasher film in its inherent ability to emphasize isolation, difference, and individuality gone awry, the community dissolved because of apathy, disinterest, and complacency. These themes appear steadily throughout, making anyone who's a fan of slasher films immediately attuned to Shiraishi's brand of havoc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Eighteen: The Ordeal (Calvaire) (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004) -- C

Like many failed horror films of the past decade, Fabrice Du Welz's The Ordeal miscalculates its dosages of homage and ingenuity, remaining far too much in awe of its predecessors (in this case, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to create anything new or, even, worthwhile. Chilling and intriguing as some of Du Welz's sequences are, little coheres or resonates past its derivative genesis. Traveling magician Marc (Laurent Lucas) is almost to his next gig when his car breaks down. Too bad for him, he's trapped in a French countryside where some odd fellows reside, the worst of which, it turns out, is the seemingly friendly Mr. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who warns Marc that he "shouldn't visit a nearby village," claiming that "not too many artistic types live there." The film's eeriest scene comes in an explicit Psycho homage, where Marc/Bartel sit in the parlor, exchanging stories, until Bartel requests that Marc sing a song for him. Unto this point, The Ordeal works as a derivative, but clever slow-burner. However, once Bartel actually captures Marc, tortures him, and sits him down at the family dinner table, where a 360 degree camera reveals all of the demented family members cackling uncontrollably, Du Welz loses grasp on his earlier, more subtle sensibilities, ultimately settling for perfunctory, literal intimations that lack resonance beyond an ephemeral gag-reflex at the depravity.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Seventeen: The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence (Tom Six, 2011) -- C

The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence might be more schizophrenic and creatively impotent than its overweight, mimetically-driven lead character; in a meta-device that consistently keeps the narrative from approaching any sort of resonance or sincerity, parking-garage attendant Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is obsessed with director Tom Six’s debut feature, The Human Centipede. He watches it every day and night on his laptop while at work; he keeps a bounded scrapbook under his bed, full of fetishizing over the original’s reputedly “100% medically accurate” mantra and especially lead actress Ashlynn Yennie, who unsurprisingly turns up as herself, late into the film. Are these ironies particularly inspired or compelling? Not really. Six situates them as some sort of perverse, socially refracted mirror, but to have any success with this brand of purported of insight, he needs more than a simple (solipsistic) idea. If M. Night Shyamalan took shit for casting himself as a prescient writer in Lady in the Water, Six’s sophomore feature merely cannibalizes his original film and ventures so far into self-effacement, one can only suspect the original as the set-up for this ludicrous, feature-length payoff (however, The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence is underway, apparently).

Nevertheless, while the high-concept stuff is easily the film’s weakest point (it does little more than allow unhinged crudity and excess), the strongest material comes during the first half, inside Martin’s home, where he lives with mother (Vivien Bridsen) and frequent visits from grossly-bearded, pervert (shock) shrink Dr. Sebring (Bill Hutchens). When questioned about Martin’s obsession over “making a centipede with twelve people,” Dr. Sebring responds: “The centipede is likely a phallic substitution for Martin’s displaced feelings of hostility and anger towards the probably sexual and psychological abuse of his father.” Six’s play is not to make this a viable explanation, but to lampoon any sort of reductive psychological or sociological reading. Problem is, Six’s treatment is nothing remotely new, denying Martin any voice whatsoever (he literally never speaks a word), then littering the film with allusions to previous trauma, albeit (again) outrageously (there’s the suggestion that “baby’s tears make daddy’s willy hard”). By suggesting there are no explanations (and, ultimately, intimating the film’s events may never have even happened), Six intentionally effaces his entire film – something, while moderately interesting conceptually, that’s simply faux-bad-boy antics, much like the bulk of The Human Centipede II’s purported “depravity.” Six lacks the ability (or will, could be either) as a filmmaker to give his horrific deeds any gravity; For example, Martin beats a pregnant woman, strips her naked, makes her part of the centipede. Near the end of the film, she escapes, hops in a car, dazed and frenzied, trying to start the engine. Before she can, she goes into labor, the baby plops out, lands by her feet. She’s elated; however, a scare from Martin cause her to scream, she puts pedal to metal – only her newborn baby’s head just happens to get in the way and she crushes it like a fresh cantaloupe. Now, the moment surely elicits groans, gasps, and guffaws (all three at once, even), but it’s hardly “provocative,” because the image, the deed, is merely exhibition, a singular act devoid of any ties outside of simple exploitation. If this is Six’s point, it’s self-defeating; moreover, Six’s mostly clinical approach to terror, shame, and gross-out lack artistry, or, even cohesion in argument – if Six is attempting to get academic, he’s too iffy in that pursuit to maintain consistency.

Thus, everything about The Human Centipede II is a bloody, shitty mess. Six commits to at least four different thematic and tonal pursuits – even chaos and nihilism needs consistency and some sort of internal “logic” (the word is insufficient) to be effective. So, when shit literally sprays onto the camera (the only color that’s (ahem) inserted into Six’s black & white cinematography), when Martin jerks-off with sandpaper, when an actress mistakes Martin’s luring-in for a Quentin Tarantino film audition, when Martin has an actual centipede funneled into his ass, when 12 people are successively executed at point-blank range, when Dr. Sebring claims he’d like to “fuck that fat retarded boy up the ass,” – the reaction is laughter, cringing, or head-shaking – the specificity of which is seemingly irrelevant to Six, so long as it’s one of the three. Is it a good thing The Human Centipede II exists? Yes. Does that make it a successful film? Not by a long shot. Nevertheless, Six’s freak-show, mad-scientist mentality does sporadically induce more than simply self-consciously trite excess, but since Six is so wrapped up in himself and his (delusional) role as provocateur (need it even be suggested that Martin is Six’s stand-in?), he comes off as little more than a self-professed, prideful, badge-wearing pervert, chasing his own ass.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Sixteen: The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2011) – C

The sun does not shine, it is too wet to play, so Columbia paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a team of Norweigian scientists sit in their Antarctic campsite all the cold, cold wet day. Kate sits there with Braxton (Joel Edgerton), they sit there, they two, and Kate says, “Oh, I wish we had something to do.” Too wet to go out and too repressed to bawl, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has them sit in the house and do nothing at all. But then!

SomeTHING went bump! How that bump makes them jump. They look and then see it crash in with a spring, the CGI-ing of The Thing. “I know some dull games we can play,” says The Thing. “I know some old tricks. A lot of old tricks, but I will act like they're new, John Carpenter will not mind the blatant 'screw you!'” Since there’s no one here to say, “make this Thing go away,” Heijningen and company get to stay in and play. He claims homage, but making easy cash is his wish, and he’s taking a shit on one of Carpenter’s most cherished. Exposition overload, no humanist recall, Heijningen is a hack – and lets everything fall.

And I say: “Do I like this? Fuck no I do not.”

Out of his box come Thing one and Thing two, so overblown and ridiculous, one wonders what to do? These things will bite you, they want to have fun, but as for Heijningen, well, he seems to have none. Kate is the leader, she knows what to say, round everyone up, and check teeth for decay. Fillings over feelings, the dance is inert, unless your knowledge is lacking, and you’re a cinephilic squirt.

Bump! Thump! Thump! Bump! Down the wall in the hall. The Thing morphs and devours so sillily, it matters nothing at all. Carpenter’s film trampled, what would he say? Oh, he would not like it to find his Thing this way. Fast as they can, a plan made by the crew, a way to get rid of the thing, some creativity is due. Nope, as it were, flamethrowers and a grenade, Haijningen’s film is a crock, though sturdily made.

Horrorthon 3: Day Fifteen: The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011) -- A-

The bleakest, most perverse satire of American, patriarchal domesticity since A History of Violence, Lucky McKee returns after two lukewarm entries (The Woods, Red) to finally fulfill the promise of his debut feature (May). Unlike in his lesser films, McKee now challenges dominant norms that resonate more through suggestion of a prolonged period of exploitation than explicit real-world links; here, it's the American narrative of nuclear family under patriarchal rule, the "in the name of the (white) father" order that facilitates racism, misogyny, and bigotry. McKee's dealings aren't particularly timely, per se; in fact, the film lacks cultural specificity to place it in the "here and now," and could almost belong to the early wave of domestic terror films in the early 1970's, begun by The Last House on The Left, Deathdream, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nevertheless, in refusing to make allusions to reality of any sort (other than grand narratives), McKee's film takes on an uncanny quality, even more terrifying in its implication that these issues aren't so much a "return of the repressed," since they remain firmly in place, hardly absent even amidst claims of "radical" social reform and politically correct speech. When sociopathic/rapist father Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) finally spews his hate-filled, epithet-laden rhetoric - it stings quite a bit.

The Cleek family lives in a middle-class country area; under the father there's mother Belle (Angela Bettis), quasi-goth loner high-school daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), young teenage son Brian (Zach Rand), and post-toddler Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen). The facade of their normalcy is revealed through Chris's depravity; finding a mysterious, "uncivilized" woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in the woods while hunting, he bags her, clears some space in the cellar, and chains her up. She's ferocious; a mesmerizing opening sequence suggests she's been raised by wolves, but that's the extent of her background. Quite like Terrence Stamp's unnamed visitor in Pasolini's Teorema, her presence bubbles tensions lying just beneath the surface, eventually bringing them, by turns both hilarious and horrifying, to an irretractable boiling point. Much like last year's Dogtooth (the first masterpiece of the new decade), The Woman is not so much parodic as embittered by its almost ineffable anger directed towards hegemonic cultural codes. However, by turning hostility into humor and irreverence, both filmmakers imbue a degree of sincerity, which makes their blood-soaked codas equal parts indeterminate and cathartic, but not illusory - the problem still lingers.

Most interesting about The Woman is the "battle-of-the-sexes" showdown that materializes throughout; suggesting "boys will be boys" rhetoric as the ignition of sexist subterfuge and nationalistic pride (an irrational belief of self-righteousness), McKee goes to dark (but necessary) places in fulfilling the totality of his satirical grasp, keying in on (as few filmmakers have been able to) a distinctly American focus on materiality and capital. When Brian sneaks into the cellar to torture and rape the eponymous Woman, the father's ultimate assessment is: "Well, if no one was harmed, then everything's fine." In concentrating on tangible results (visible evidence of bodily damage), McKee implicitly critiques capitalistic drives, the belief in "no harm, no foul" if the damage cannot be evidenced in empirical ways. Ignoring shame, pride, honor, dignity (emotion, essentially), morals and ethics are irrevocably cast-aside, enabling a rationalization of depravity. While one of the sole references to religion is a bit egregious (Chris cartoonishly claims he "still wants to get to heaven" after committing rape), it nevertheless problematizes a reductive reading or take, since McKee is not pinpointing a specific genesis for this sort of chauvinist, "mightier-than-thou" behavior. There's a persistent ambivalence concurrent throughout, and right when The Woman feels like it's about to go off-the-rails, McKee tightens the screws, ups the ante, and dares you, to use a crude (but appropriate) colloquialism, to "pull-out." When McKee's at his sharpest, there are no easy answers.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Fourteen: Maléfique (Eric Valette, 2002) -- C

Pervert A Man Escaped to include four loopy characters, black magic nonsense, and an ending with Child's Play implications (awesome, at that), and you have Maléfique, less compelling horror film than one-trick hokum. Belonging to a subgenre of subsequent films to include Saw, Buried, Devil, Pontypool, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, and Exam (among others), director Eric Valette concentrates the growing dread and satanic implications into one space - a prison cell holding four considerably different inmates. Carrère (Gérald Laroche) is a career family/businessman serving time for fraud; Marcus (Clovis Cornillac) is a transvestite (is that his crime?), egging on retard protege Pâquerette (Dimitri Rataud), who apparently ate his six-month old sister (you read correctly). Finally, Lassalle (Philippe Laudenbach) murdered his cheating wife - but also holds knowledge about a book found in the gents cell, containing the (mad?) ravings of a century old inmate, who believed he could use satanic forces to escape the cell. Naturally, the book's teachings prove true; utilizing various symbols and commands, the odd-foursome can cause blasts and fire, potentially leading to a successful escape. They also learn (unfortunately for them), that the author's spirit remains alive in the book, angered when it's put in jeopardy, and seeking violent vengeance against anyone who attempts to extinguish it. If the exposition is tiring to read, it's even more so to watch, as Valette plugs along with his supernatural inclinations, without any greater sense of self or purpose. Moreover, even on a basic narrative level, the characters are silly and transparently manufactured - their choices and backgrounds are irony-filled, rather than causal. Nevertheless, the final implications are almost hilarious enough to warrant a look - but that would mean slogging through the rest of it - an insignificantly conceived bit of gorehound inanity.

Horrorthon 3: Day Thirteen: In My Skin (Marina De Van, 2002) -- B-

In My Skin begins with various split-screen shots, the right screen reflecting the negative image of that on the left, an obvious but useful evocation of subjective division, something director Marina De Van's convincing foray into body-horror acutely, if ultimately underwhelmingly, deals with. Esther's (also Marina De Van) bourgeois status is readily apparent; she has a nice job with a marketing firm, loving boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas), and a group of supportive friends. All of this stability becomes an issue when Esther gashes her leg at a party, becomes fascinated with her torn flesh, and transitions into systematic self-mutilation, cutting and knifing herself, at times for real, others imagined (a dinner scene is especially notable). De Van explicitly links these acts with Esther's ennui and detachment from feeling, which her "life of comfort" does not facilitate. Moreover, every character around her is less concerned with Esther's health than their own vanity/self-preservation; the boyfriend wonders aloud what's wrong with him, as to make her behave this way; her boss threatens to "cut her loose" after an unprofessional display; the only real concern comes from best friend Sandrine (Lea Drucker), but even she holds a grudge for Esther's upward mobility within the company. Metaphors of suffocation abound; the growing division between self (the flesh) and other (the constructed business woman) leads Esther to literal self-cannibalism. In My Skin isn't nearly as provocative as, say Denis's Trouble Every Day, but it is more precise and convincing than something like Black Swan - bubble-gum hysteria if there ever was. De Van's ends aren't very compelling (she seems uncertain on where to go next), but when Esther's bodily obsessions and mutilations take shape, few horror films have the ability to make you squirm quite like this one.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twelve: The Dead (The Ford Brothers, 2011) -- D+

A UK import that’s as lifeless as any domestic variant, The Dead (literal title should be hint #1) does little more than flip the post-apocalyptic setting from stateside to Africa, a move that could (and should) yield fascinating results. Instead, the Ford Brothers come off as fanboys rather than satirists/sociologists, flat-out banal in their derivative dialogue, plotting, and approach to scares. The failure is fascinating in-and-of itself: how can such an inspired geographical shift yield such meddlesome results? Well, when cultural specificity succumbs to hackneyed screenwriting tactics (there are strains of motivation, backstory, and unlikely partnership throughout), all that’s left is the fat – homogenized at that. Moreover, in the decision to have a displaced American Air Force Lieutenant (Rob Freeman) as one of the leads (or, in usual white-guy-steals-black-guy’s-movie terms, THE lead), the Ford Brothers forgo a more compelling alternative to appeal to populist expectation. Their attempts to guise this decision as purely narrative driven falters (local Sergeant Daniel (Prince David Osei) criticizes the white man’s hypocritical arrival of “raised weapons, medicine hand-outs”), in that it’s merely another screenwriting trick to establish conflict (to be resolved, surely). Furthermore – this is an ugly looking film by any stretch. To say “it’s supposed to be ugly” misses the point; the directorial duo lack a sense of economy, their mise-en-scene merely “point-and-shoot,” rather than tightly composed. Like many indie filmmakers, the pair have little-to-nothing to offer outside their shoestring budget pride, which even loses its charm when one realizes this is just the same sort of ho-hum hack-work big-budget Hollywood churns out. Either way, the results are the same.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Eleven: Love - Zero = Infinity (Hisayasu Sato, 1994) -- C+

Sharing many similar themes (and quite a comparable scenario) to Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Hisayasu Sato’s Love – Zero = Infinity (great snarky art-house title) appropriates a real-world setting for a vampire-cum-AIDS allegory (or, not so allegorical, since these terms are explicitly used in the film) concerned with isolation, sickness, sexuality, and consumerism – all of which is shrouded under the pretense of tragedy. So, a disillusioned twenty's-something wanders the streets of Tokyo, seeking strangers to latch onto, and follow for a glimpse inside their lives. He soon finds a young woman who, he comes to suspect, may be a vampire. Less visionary than forced provocation, Sato lingers over shots of his lead characters standing, walking, staring, and talking, with lines as straight-faced as “I wonder if I wander around the city…or if it wanders around me?” Not exactly daunting stuff (neophyte existentialism), especially since Sato’s two-dimensional scope (fucking, extended ennui) never cohere with the sillier strands involving a corporation who sells HIV-infected blood, or the rather trite approach to its vampirism (“In a way, she’s a modern vampire.”). Nevertheless, Sato's dealing with AIDS is rare for Japanese cinema at the time (I'm struggling to think of any films that explicitly dealt with the matter, but my knowledge is by no means comprehensive on this topic), and there are several visually compelling moments dispersed throughout. Sato’s tendency towards heavy-handedness remains mostly in-check – the real problem is he has an idea, an eye for composition, but not much else to work with or expand upon. But at 64 minutes, maybe that’s all he felt to be necessary.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Ten: Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) -- D+

Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a horror persona non grata, a misappropriation of the horror ethos for a “genre-bending” (as knee-jerk enthusiasts like to call it) exercise in banality, feigning provocation and anger as it blindly drives to its fashionably nihilistic conclusion (one of the most risible in recent memory). Several have claimed this as some sort of “stunning masterwork,” “unforgettable experience,” and “masterpiece that transcends the genre” (all quotes taken from the DVD jacket), but one wonders after enduring such puerile inanity (make no mistake, this is idiot savant stuff par excellence) what exactly its enthusiasts find so rewarding? Is it what they perceive to be its depravity? The levels of gore? Profound narrative implications? Hardly. Martyrs is merely prolonged foreplay – it never really gets down to business.

Such a film inherently forces one to confront taste, to make an aesthetic judgment amidst the revenge-driven shotgun-wielding (whoa! So nutzz!), the return-of-the-repressed golem/ghost figure (fucking creepy!), the aged matriarch with delusions of grandeur (what a sick bitch!), and the skinning, beating, whipping, and (let’s face it) crucifying (the film more than alludes to “stages of the cross” pretenses). Anyone not tricked by the numbly outlandish visual fetishes will be able to permeate Laugier’s thin layer of obfuscatory bullshit, and discover that, indeed, very little lies beneath. Early in the film, during a chilling opening credits sequence, there’s a sense that Martyrs will be a rebuke to art house and bourgeois voyeurism, establishing pretenses of discourse only to dissolve them for untamed sequences of brutal torture. Laugier is far too self-absorbed and aware to participate in, what I’ll call, “Trojan-Horse” cinema, a film that outwardly appears to function under genre archetypes, only to systematically implode these signposts and force complacent viewers to confront subsumed truths that govern their capitalistic, patriarchal desires. Nah, Laugier’s too worried about fucking-up rather than fucking-with genre, an imperative distinction that separates art from a growing trend of red-herring cinema.

Martyrs plays on recreating images of historical trauma, only it has absolutely nothing to say or offer (aside from exhibiting extremely poor taste), exploiting instead of expanding. Moreover, Laugier engages in the same sort of scumbag lesbian fantasies as Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, but he’s added an additional element: a matriarchal, guilt-ridden hag, who receives the pleasure of ultimately blowing her brains out, the film’s concluding image (how daring). She gets to say hilarious lines like, “There are only victims left. There are very few martyrs anymore,” and, referring to the lead’s prolonged punishment: “She experienced authentic martyrdom.” Laugier has clearly watched (and probably jerked-off to) Saló an unspeakable number of times, seemingly infatuated with its unrivaled postulation of fascism, cinema, and degradation as abjectly intertwined. Fair enough – but Laugier’s interests bend more towards the degradation, the guy who likes the film because of how “fucked-up” it is, rather than for its more suggestive qualities. Gorehounds, scumbags, assholes – dig in.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Nine: The Ward (John Carpenter, 2011) -- D

The Ward proves imprisoning on many levels, namely that John Carpenter, arguably the greatest horror filmmaker of the past 30+ years, returns to feature filmmaking after a decade’s absence with something this limp, literal, and undistinguished. Something’s amiss from the opening sequence, as a nameless psych-ward patient has her neck broken by an unseen zombie/ghost-like figure, before transitioning into a creative, but unremarkable credits sequence. Without a hand in the writing and score, Carpenter’s auteur touches remain on the periphery – this may be his ugliest film visually, his most depressing thematically. Essentially, the film revolves around Oregonian psychiatric hospital newbie Kristen (Amber Heard), whose presence brings with her an unnamed ghost, wreaking havoc on an annoying troupe of female inmates, most of whom speak in little-girl voices and generally act deranged. If most of the characters appear too alike and/or too distinctly separate from one another, there’s a tidy plot twist coming to clarify this paradox.

Never once is The Ward compelling. Not really, anyway, except for maybe the recognition of Carpenter’s signature metonymy, focusing on the descending hand of his ghostly killer rather than the entire figure, (a continual allusion to Rodin’s famous piece, surely), especially when the girls get strapped to a gurney and have a long metal instrument plunged into their eye socket. Aside from these acute visual touches, The Ward offers very little formal mastery – Carpenter’s stock and trade. It’s also difficult to think of another recent film that’s this much of an aural assault, dispersing jump scares like they’re going out of style and dialing the “BRUMM!” noises to eleven. Enough already. After the tenth one, it’s tempting to just press mute. Moreover, the script (by two hack brothers named Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) desperately culls elements from much better films, churning out scenes lacking the slightest idiosyncrasy or subtlety. To say Carpenter remains on autopilot here would be an insult – it’s sub-autopilot, catatonic in its inanity, a disrespectful slap-in-the-face to the director’s fans. Carpenter has always projected a veneer of cynicism and disregard in interviews, letting his films reveal themselves, a master, minimalist filmmaker. He doesn’t appear to be having fun anymore and that loss makes The Ward an unendurable mess, numb, hackneyed and fragmented as to dispel all artistry, meaning, and, most certainly, feeling.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Eight: Bio Zombie (Wilson Yip, 1998) -- C

Described in its advertising campaign as "Hong Kong's answer to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (about two decades late, at that), Bio Zombie deserves no such alignment with Romero's masterpiece (not even close) and actually belongs in the sub-bargain-bins of your nearest retailer for films lacking any perceptible purpose for existing other than a quick cash grab). Directed by Wilson Yip (he would go on the helm the stellar IP Man films), a group of shopping mall temps and punks are left to fend for their lives after a tainted soft-drink leads to rampant zombification (always a shame when that happens). Less concerned with consumerist critique than genre exercise, Yip goofily traverses the well-beaten path, vacillating between comedy and horror to muddled effect. Though there's a fair amount of amusement to the typical proceedings (especially for horror buffs) there's also a dearth of inspiration; aside from a split-screen bit, the tense retrieval of some necessary keys, and flashes of succinct cultural humor (visual allusions to Resident Evil and The House of the Dead video games), Yip merely plugs a youthful Asian cast into the slasher/zombie template, less about emphasizing the cultural shifts than hitting the identically trite notes of its North American counterparts. Genre is about conviction, not convention, something Yip's wholly derivative film remains oblivious to.

Horrorthon 3: Day Seven: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011) -- A-

Great horror films express themselves in a way that's inseparable from the milieu they inhabit - environment is the direct correlative for enabling a breakdown of order, consciousness, and control. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, while not outwardly projecting archetypes that readily signify its terrifying implications, functions on dread (the obvious term), but more precisely, the horror of post-dread, not that something bad is inevitably going to happen, but that there's no solution to correct said inevitability - a sense that an abject past, an intangible sin, has solidified (predetermined, if you will) an unwavering temporal logic, irrational in its seeming fixity. Nichols brilliantly takes these sensations and anxieties, then deftly ties them to a zeitgeist that feels nearly prescient in its class-based specificity. Everything about Take Shelter is implicit.


Underlying the overt narrative, which involves Ohio based, middle-class family man cum construction worker Curtis (Michael Shannon) experiencing a series of nightmares and delusions, is one that devastatingly attests to the fragility of middle-class security; as Curtis's delusions grow more intense (pissing the bed, seizures), his inability to seek help stems from both his own stubbornness (bred from culturally-specific shame and fear in failing to serve as familial patriarch) and health care/treatment insufficiencies (the doctor Curtis really needs is a few hundred miles away). Feeling the brunt of his deteriorating mental health are wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), the latter of whom has health problems requiring continual attention. Moreover, once Curtis's negligence, primarily in obsessing over constructing a tornado shelter in his backyard, gets him fired, the health benefits dry up, the beach trip must be cancelled, and a once happy family is forced to go into survival mode. Nevertheless - the question remains: is Curtis slowly becoming a paranoid schizophrenic...or are his apocalyptic visions coming to fruition?

Few of the more literal narrative questions are of much significance, ultimately, since the film creepily, devastatingly reveals its true hand once all of the economic factors begin to become more horrifying than any potential impending natural disaster; more than metaphor, the lightning, thunder, and storm motifs reaffirm an instability crisis, that when the ideal dissipates due to various factors (a falsely conscious ideal at that), there will be no corporeal savior, no one to provide solace other than a community of like-minded, like-class individuals - but only to a certain extent (Shannon's primary Oscar-bait scene proves the tipping point). Practical solutions only tread water; faith and religion (though not directly stated in the film) are implied through Curtis's potentially Biblical visions. Mental illness, financial crisis, familial horror - Nichols's near-masterpiece considers all of these variables in producing his complex vision of tradition lost, future uncertain. Here's the film Dream House could (should) have been. Take Shelter's release amidst the Occupy Wall Street movement is a chilling corollary, one which Nichols obviously couldn't have foreseen, but a direct affirmation of his film's immediacy and gravity.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011) -- B+

There's nothing about George Clooney's oeuvre unto this point that would suggest the understated grace and power found in The Ides of March, not so much subtle (Clooney's agenda consistently remains at the fore) as humble, especially in Clooney's decision to make hot-shot campaign adviser Stephen (Ryan Gosling) idealistic, but intelligent, naive (perhaps) but human - he's not merely a pawn to manipulate political rhetoric (unlike Clooney's hero-worship propaganda Good Night and Good Luck). Early in the film, sitting with cunning, cynical journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei), he gets knocked down a peg: "Your campaign efforts won't matter one bit to the everyday fuckers, go to work, come home, go to sleep - not one bit." A sharp script written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon (the film is based on his play Farragut North) offers Gosling, Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood ample opportunity to captivate; though necessarily stagy in its talking heads template, Clooney alters shots well, often reserving close-ups for more tense moments, and ratcheting up tension through mise-en-scene, a lost art even in much contemporary art cinema. In what's essentially a terse morality tale, Gosling's idealist faces corruption via Wood's intern, who reveals a nasty little secret about Clooney's Governor Morris, whose campaign for a presidential nomination hinges primarily on winning Ohio and North Carolina. Naturally, he realizes idealism isn't as easy in practice as it is in theory, but Clooney never makes those choices dramatic tentpoles, instead realizing and offering snippets of discourse and choice, fracturing drama rather than ratcheting it up; the film's best scene may be Gosling sitting in his car, rain beating down on the windshield, realizing the depth of his actions, only a little too late. Some lines are a bit on the nose; Paul (Seymour Hoffman) claims the Republicans "can't find a nominee who isn't a world class fuck up," or when Gosling is approached by rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Giamatti), Gosling exclaims: "This is the kind of shit the Republicans pull!" The Ides of March is best when it refrains from real-world ties, per se (the choice to use actual pundits is an ungainly error, the same tactics used by the abysmal The Adjustment Bureau) and focuses on what Clooney perceives as a sort of passive venality, alluding to actual politics rather than explicit parallels. In doing so, he offers an ambivalency that walks a compelling line between outright cynicism and hopeful humanism, lamenting corruption, but not pompous enough to suggest a quick fix or reduce the complexity of career aspirations getting roughed-up in the cogs of a permanently broken political machine.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Six: Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau, 1996) -- B+

Ebola Syndrome functions best as a revolting satire of epidemic-related paranoia, specifically referring to American films of this type (director Herman Yau apparently decided to make the film after seeing Outbreak). However, by relegating the epidemic text to the background (the virus is only an ancillary component) and placing deranged serial killer Kai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) in the fore, Yau synthesizes anxieties to produce an hilarious, hardly frightening, but often grotesque examination of cultural fears, both of the micro and macroscopic variety.

Beginning in Hong Kong, Kai is a delinquent pervert - his attempted rape of his boss's wife leads to a threat of castration, Kai pleading on his knees for mercy: "I have such a small dick. It's already so small. Don't castrate me, boss." Male insufficiency becomes a bizarrely recurring theme; after fleeing HK for a subsequent murder, Kai settles in Johannesburg, working in a restaurant where he "asks so little salary and does everything." Trying to warm up to the owner, he assures him he must "have a big dick" since he hears his wife moaning loudly every night. The owner agrees.

Bodily fears play out in ways both legitimate and satirical. Kai's genitalia fascinations are meant humorously, not to be refracted through a psychological diagnosis - the Western approach to psychopathology. In fact, much of the sequences seem oddly disproportionate and incongruous, in that the entire narrative mode is often difficult to decipher, since the abject excess of blood, mutilation, and sexist/racist ("The negroes are so dark, you never know if they have expressions on their faces") discourse seems to warrant a film of "higher" aspirations, not tinged with crudities and anchored by a character so overtly perverse as Kai. Nevertheless, in choosing to play Kai's behavior for absurdist humor, Yau inherently improves upon and critiques bourgeois films that use such material to guise the voyeurism of a more "sophisticated" audience. There's no pretense here: just abjection, untamed by the absence of a supportive, "intellectual" narrative.

After contracting the Ebola virus by raping an African woman, spreading it throughout Johannesburg by preparing Ebola-infected meat patties termed "African Buns," then returning to Hong Kong following another murder warrant placed on his head, Ebola Syndrome confirms itself as grindhouse oddity, littered with meta-textual elements and stripped of "art house" presumptions. When Kai proclaims "It's God who invented the Ebola virus, not me!" then runs through the streets repeatedly shouting "EBOL-YAI-AHHHH," there's a curious undercurrent of triviality and significance, contradictory in its obvious inanity, but relevant in its subsumed refutation of Western culture's dominant mores, cultural globalization seeping into Asian culture. If Ebola Syndrome is ultimately silly, amoral, and menial, well, that's pretty much the point.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Five: Baby Blood (Alain Robak, 1990) -- B-

Baby Blood is rife with imagery linking post-adolescent Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou) to animalistic behavior, a connection the film will have much deviant pleasure in fulfilling. Yanka is equal part slave/novice, the young wife of a sadistic circus ringleader who beats and bosses her around relentlessly. After an especially brutal “training” session, her body is penetrated by a snake-like creature, borne out of an imported African leopard (eh), which turns her into a blood-thirsty, man-slaying vampire. The amorphous creature is given an androgynous voice, more old woman than anything, and as the film purports during the opening voice over, amidst images of oozing volcanoes and barren terrain (spoken by the absent creature): “For me, only one thing was needed – to be born.” Director Alain Robak apparently has an unchecked fetish for femme fatales tinged with a degree of Biblical dread (he replays Yanka’s seductions numerous times), but his more flagrant, crude sensibilities are diluted by a genuine flair for body horror, that which grows within, internal threats trumping exterior fears. Moreover, after Yanka’s possession, Robak abandons any pretense of reality (or even discourse), opting instead for bizarrely surrealistic Basket Case-inspired repartee between Yanka and the interior beast, the unseen creature often speaking for the deluded, depleted woman. Robak has fun with his creature too, giving it silly dialogue like, “I am not a monster. I talk like a human, I think like a human,” or the ever subtle: “You fuck him and I’ll grab him by the balls.” More affectual than intelligent, Baby Blood blends misogyny and feminism into an almost indecipherable hybrid, grotesque more often than not, but rarely without sense enough to let the blood-spurting absurdity speak for itself.

Horrorthon 3: Day Four: Dream House (Jim Sheridan, 2011) -- D-

There are many horrific things about Dream House, least among them the film's content which, once the nauseating narrative twists have taken shape, hardly resembles much of anything at all, and certainly not a horror film. Such a transition would be fascinating if it could be called an evolution, starting with one ethos and morphing into another - rather, nonsense replaces operative logic. If one didn't know any better, it would be tempting to label director Jim Sheridan and screenwriter David Louka (whose previous credits should have tipped-off incompetency) mad-scientist satirists, formulating a truly abject horror film, with the veneer of archetype disguising an impending implosion of normative expectation and diegesis. In fact, nearly twenty minutes into the film, I thought I was witnessing a masterpiece goofily establishing cliche only to (hopefully) deftly deconstruct the facade of domestic security, irrational belief and, as the title alludes to, the "American Dream." Instead, it becomes abundantly clear Sheridan must have suffered some sort of serious head injury during production. The film doesn't make a lick of sense.

Aspiring to cover nearly identical territory as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) leaves his job and the city (an opening sequence is amusingly surrealistic) for a house in the suburbs with wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two young daughters. Unfortunately for Will, the previous owner murdered his family, something he learns about via cultist teenagers, hilariously uninvolved police officers, and neighbor lady Ann (Naomi Watts). Clue #1: Always follow the casting rule: when a big star plays a seemingly insignificant role, it ain't so insignificant. Moreover, those familiar with the film's spoiler ridden trailer know the first eye-rolling twist: Will is actually the same man who murdered his family, freshly out of the asylum, created a new name for himself (in an hilarious revelation, Will took the new name from his wrist-band ID number), and has been occupying the "space" where his trauma rests. Ultimately, and lacking any gall to force Craig to wrestle with repressed demons, Loucka integrates a pathetic sub-plot to alleviate Will of his crime, leading to a fifteen minute finale that's as funny, ludicrous, and pathetic as any film from 2011.

Oddly enough, had Sheridan taken Loucka's script, dialed it two clicks to the right, and amped up the subtext, Dream House could have been genre-busting auto-critique; one might expect as much from Sheridan, whose previous films exist outside of genre, often turning towards familial concerns, but without succumbing to readily marketable signposts. His sensibilities here, however, suggest someone well outside their comfort zone, a deer-in-the-headlights of sorts, so uncertain on how to manipulate a sub-hackneyed script, that he just closed his eyes and hoped it would even mildly gel and disguise his confusion. Themes are just jacked-up; is this an affirmation or critique of domestic-driven desires? Why is David Loucka allowed to keep writing scripts? Has Jim Sheridan gone off the deep-end? Indeterminate, no idea, apparently so.

Monday, October 3, 2011

50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011) -- C-

What an infuriating concoction Jonathan Levine's 50/50 is. There hasn't been a film in some time that's this genuinely admirable, but almost completely misguided; so, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has cancer. He's 27, works editing stories for a radio station, exercises regularly, doesn't smoke or drink, even refuses to have a driver's license because it's "the fifth leading cause of death." Ho-ho the irony. Nevertheless, his cancer leads him to reevaluate his life, consisting of a troubled relationship with cheating girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his potentially selfish best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a distant relationship with Mom (Anjelica Huston), and his newfound interest in baby-shrink Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Bonding comes amidst chemo sessions with two old-timers, a new-found appreciation for medicinal marijuana, and occasional ventures with Kyle to get laid (Adam reluctantly uses his cancer to attract women). There's much delight to be found in small moments here, such as a brilliant three-way comedic exchange when Kyle discovers Rachael's infidelity, Gordon-Levitt's vacillating levity and anger (strong performance), and the film's refusal to pander by engaging religious matters of any sort. Nevertheless, in opting for the latter, 50/50 panders to secular pride, not choosing atheism via dialectics, but through cowardice, as if screenwriter Will Reiser doesn't have the cojones to broach the subject and Levine isn't concerned about calling him on it.

Moreover, amidst this absence, Levine opts for syrupy indie-pathos, his film custom-fitted with a self-pitying soundtrack, tidy moments of pain and pleasure, and characters that never give the lead any real instances of trauma. Rogen's douchebag demeanor disguises genuine empathy and self-doubt; Kendrick's artless tactics evoke her girlish sexuality; Dallas Howard's shrew gets an audience pandering "fuck-you" send-off. Adam never really has to face death - the film vapidly struggles with repressed fears and incomprehensible mortality. The extent of his pain explodes during a screaming session in a car, followed by an "I love you" phone call to an in-bed, reading Kendrick (what a saint). Where's the shittiness? Where's the subjective trauma, the uncorked rage, the endless questioning, the desertion, the isolation, the feelings of utter helplessness? Reiser and Levine have little interest in really putting Adam up against it for, when one friend leaves, another one enters, inherently sluggish choices that merely placate viewers who want to shed a false tear. Most offensive, though, is the ending, not just that Gordon-Levitt is (spoiler) going to be okay, but that his survival is patly, garishly used for succinct closure, regressing back to opening idiotic behavior/discussion (Rogen swabs ointment on Adam's back scar...with his finger! HAHA), and an official meet-cute between healthy Adam and willing Katherine that completely tanks all conceptions that 50/50 is anything more than liberal-baiting idiocy.

Horrorthon 3: Day Three: Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968) -- B+

Climate has a dual meaning in Hajime Sato's Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, as weather and politics are inextricably linked. Flying a jetliner, the pilot looks out over the orange clouds and blood-red distance, claiming (as he rightfully should), "never seen a sky like that before." The troubled sky, it turns out, is indicative of an oncoming alien invasion, an event to be felt by the members of the aforementioned flight, after a mean thunderstorm leaves them stranded in the desert, an eclectic cast of characters (a politician, psychologist, terrorist, white woman) left to resolve their difficulties and differences amidst impending doom. Thankfully, Sato's film has far more pep and intelligence than the standard disaster-movie template (in fact, this film arrives well before many of the 1970's American staples), in that the disaster is explicitly (if didactically) tied to Vietnam paranoia, the warring nature of mankind directly responsible for alien intrusion ("Ever since the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, flying saucer sightings have increased dramatically."). More thrilling about Goke, in terms of archetype, is that it integrates a proto-slasher figure, a would-be terrorist taken over by aliens (the film's best sequence), as the gooey, Blob-like creature penetrates through the forehead, an amusing allusion to collective consciousness and body politic, the mind's desires limited by the capabilities of collective bodies to achieve such ends. Sato has a keen sense of humor too, as when the psychologist goes on a rant about caring for fellow human beings and the politician replies: "Humanism. Just what we need." Moreover, orange-tinted Vietnam footage is integrated throughout (to match the ominous skyline) and if these touches weren't enough, a character makes it clear by film's end: "We're so busy killing each other, the aliens have a golden opportunity to attack." The less-than-subtle choices are off-set by Sato's visceral filmmaking in a number of sequences, a proficiency in establishing genre ethos, and enacting a satirical humanism (even if more than occasionally sexist) while loftily probing historicity without being offensively reductive.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Abduction (John Singleton, 2011) -- D

There's a moment about one-third of the way into Abduction, surely the year's silliest film to date (well, on second thought, Bucky Larson wins every crown for terribleness this year), where Nathan (Taylor Lautner), having just seen his mother (err, wait, his adopted mother?) murdered by two random heavies, stands and watches in terror. The camera goes in on Lautner's face, his lips trembling, his eyes teary - as my friend aptly stated during this moment: "Here comes the acting!" Telegraphed from A-Z, the scene ends on a rarely precise note; one of the heavies, wounded and dying, warns Nathan and neighbor-girl love interest Karen (Lily Collins) that, indeed, "THERE'S A BOMB IN THE OVEN!" Not merely basting, but a fully-cooked turkey, John Singleton (the fuck happened to this guy?) sees this thriller concocted world (Lionsgate paid $1 million for Shawn Christensen's script to boot) as devoid of logic, reason, or continutiy (unintentionally). In what becomes a thoroughly meaningless, unhinged chase flick, Lautner and Collins exchange creaky exposition rehashing dialogue ("I just saw my parents get killed before my own eyes!") and goofy, pubescent glances, culminating in a train make-out (HOT!), right before Lautner must use his martial arts skills to crack-down two more anonymous, gun-toting baddies. One can only sit, face-in-palms, and snicker at the soiled product. We may have a Cool As Ice level disaster here. Were Singleton's sensibilities remotely refined, he could have used this Lautner vehicle as inverted genre cinema, critiquing consumption while providing it - a subversive act. Nope. For, when Lautner claims at film's end that it's been "one helluva first date," patrons must exit the theater in shame, sadness, and perhaps, even tears.

Horrorthon 3: Day Two: The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921) -- B+

Speaking on ghosts and the cinema in the 1983 film Ghost Dance, Jacques Derrida states: "That's what I think the cinema is all about, when it's not boring; it's the art of allowing ghosts to come back." With The Criterion Collection's recent release of Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage, Derrida's claim has rarely been so apropos; not so much a resurfacing relic as an uncanny (re)presentation of cinematic hallucination (in both form and content), Sjöström's film reenters the cultural consciousness amidst times of amorality, artistic crisis, and deflated aesthetic sensibilities, the eponymous vestige a chilling signifier within and without its own context, exuberant filmic technique (a tangible love for the medium and its subjects) now a phantom unto itself amidst larger goals of corporatism, franchises, and other detrimental cultural illnesses, foremost among them political correctness. The Phantom Carriage is by no means a great film (its views of righteousness are far too reductive), but the level of formal interest (tinting, superimposition, exaggerated close-ups) imbue the Dickensian hokum (albeit via a marvelously fractured chronology) with a larger sense of significance, specifically in the film's final third, as David Holm's (Victor Sjöström) alcoholism becomes less about proselytizing than personal redemption, individualistic perseverance diffusing compassion amidst economic hardship. If The Phantom Carriage can't find resonance in comparable times of various crises, then it curiously reaffirms Nietzsche's maxim to "let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species." An ephemeral culture probably lacks space for Sjöström's prescience.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day One: I Was a Teenage Zombie (John Elias Michalakis, 1987) -- D-

More shocking than the utter incompetence of I Was a Teenage Zombie, an affectless genre (spoof?) entry that deserves to be left in 1980's obscurity, is that Janus Films now owns the rights of distribution, suggesting a Criterion release could be somewhere down the pipeline. In what would instantly become the company's worst release, director John Michalakis displays absolutely zero aptitude for anything that could even be mistaken as related to humor, horror, and/or good taste (if you will), assembling a group of high school dorks (none of whose names are even worth mentioning) who pool their money to buy a quarter pound of weed. Unfortunately, their chosen drug dealer deals them some bad dope, they seek revenge for having their money stolen, inadvertently killing the drug dealer, his body falling in a pool of toxic waste, only to have him resurrected as a zombie, now seeking vengeance against the teens who left him for dead. Everything that could be funny here (and it ain't much to begin with) is squandered amidst bizarrely, unusually unfunny choices, a slew of one-liners, nonsensical behavior, and dopey conceptualization, resulting in a dearth of interest or reason to pay the slightest attention to whatever inane point Michalakis might be venturing. Is this parody? Is it simply low-budget failure, an attempt to make a horror/comedy that qualifies as neither? Hard to say, since there's never any consistency of vision and approach. There's a semblance of the types of films made by Troma (there's even a character named Lloyd Kaufman), in that the shoestring budget aesthetic and amateur acting contribute to the film's larger sensibilities. However, belittling Kaufman's endeavors to mere signifiers (he's clearly a satirist) and suggesting any real similarities in terms of approach would bestow a degree of significance to Michalakis that his hackery doesn't deserve. The filmmaking is atrocious, empty, and only fit for nerds who look to horror as a means of fanboy sustenance.