The House of the Devil (2009)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
"The House of the Devil" looks and feels like it was made in the late 1970s or early 1980s—and that's meant as a compliment. Fresh-faced Margot Kidder lookalike, Jocelin Donahue, plays Sam, a money-strapped, Farrah Fawcett-haired college sophomore who, on a night of a full lunar eclipse, answers a campus flier and takes a job babysitting at a Victorian house (of the devil) in the middle of nowhere. The job turns out not to be what was advertised: there's no baby, just an aged mother (Mrs. Bates perhaps?). But it's $400 for four hours, listening to The Fixx on her Walkman (remember those?) and chowing down on free pizza. Evil lurks.
Going back to old-school atmosphere and suspense, unsung writer-director Ti West (of 2007's minimalist, tension-driven "Trigger Man") retro-fits this economic, slow-burn little horror film as a reprieve from all the "Saw"-influenced “torture-porn” and "Scream"-inspired wink-and-nudge films. The setup is great and the payoff is satisfyingly creepy that echoes works from Roman Polanski and Dario Argento. Cult actors Mary Woronov ("Death Race 2000," "Eating Raoul") and Tom Noonan ("Manhunter") show up as Satanic cultists, with Dee Wallace Stone's cameo as an apartment realtor an extra delight.
The Loved Ones (2009)
84 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Pretend Molly Ringwald turned out to be a psychotic loon after she snagged the guy in "Pretty in Pink," for the sake of getting the premise of "The Loved Ones," an insanely twisted and amusingly morbid love-hurts horror film. The cute-as-a-peach Robin McLeavy's sad loneliness as a spurned teen named Lola turns into creepy, hellish zeal. She's desperate, weird, disturbing, and scary as hell.
Once Lola asks her crush, Brent (Xavier Samuel), to prom, he politely rejects her. Brent already has a girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thaine), and he lost his dad in a car accident six months ago. So Lola's Daddy (John Brumpton), a sicko himself, kidnaps Brent so his princess can have a little torture play (after his larynx is paralyzed from an injection). Oh, and they keep Lola's ex-frogs as cannibalistic skeletons in a chamber under the floor.
Documentary short filmmaker Sean Byrne makes his feature debut and first writing credit with "The Loved Ones." He shows a highly confident hand for staging the crazy, over-the-top carnage. The sensationalism is “torture porn” but pretty clever on that count, and Byrne brings it a demented sense of black comedy. Recalling "Carrie," "Misery," and "Audition," the movie is like a feature-length version of the dinner scene in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." It becomes mighty apparent that Byrne's material is thin, as the action intercuts to a futile subplot with Brent's goofy best friend on a date with a gothic chick. But "The Loved Ones" truly goes into high gear and really goes there with the gasps, jolts, and nervous giggles.
Kasey Chambers' lighthearted tune “Not Pretty Enough” (Lola's favorite) will stick with you from its creepy use. McLeavy and Brumpton make a demented pair to remember. Their weird, incestuous relationship is hard to stomach, but then that's the point, and so are the scenes with a drill, a hammer and knife, a glass of milk, and burning laundry soap. Not only a bracingly violent and icky horror film but also a mean black comedy and heartbreaking teen angst story with a side of crazy. Those Aussies might need some psychiatric help in the near future, but depravity-heads who crave extreme horror will dig this relentless, gleefully sick gem. The less daring viewer should stay far away.
Trick 'r Treat (2009)
87 min., rated R.
Grade: A -
Consistently fun and atmospheric with an autumnal crispness, fresh new filmmaker Michael Dougherty's "Trick 'r Treat" sets out to become the definitive Halloween staple for the season of the witch: it's like a festive, entertaining Grimm's fairy tale with jack o'lanterns and candy. Set on one spooky Halloween night, this horror anthology weaves together four intersecting tales, with cohesive leaps backward and forward in time.
In the first, pudgy troublemaker Charlie (Brett Kelly, whom you'll recognize from "Bad Santa") picks the wrong house to steal candy from, the owner being a school principal (Dylan Baker) who does some serial killing on the side. Next, a group of young trick-or-treaters play a nasty trick on a nerdy classmate involving a legendary bus crash off a rock quarry, but they get what's coming to them. Never has there been so much abandon in the murdering of children or exposing them to it. The third story is a deceptively clever and ironic spin on the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale with Anna Paquin, as a red-cloaked virgin on her way to find herself a man (or so it seems) for a costume party with her boy-crazy sister and friends, unknowingly stalked by a vampiric phantom.
"Trick 'r Treat" owes inspiration to "Creepshow" and "Tales From the Darkside," with a comic-booky credit sequence, and it gleefully exploits the superstitions that surround the holiday, from blowing out the light of your jack o'lantern to not checking your candy before eating it. The cast is an ideal fit, especially Dylan Baker (playing his second sick-in-the-head dad since Todd Solondz's "Happiness") who's a twistedly funny-scary, over-the-top delight with two wickedly sick punchlines to his character, and (in the fourth) Brian Cox as a cranky, scraggly neighbor who opens his door to a little pumpkin head fiend with a costume out of 2008's "The Orphanage."
Horror fans will salivate over this stylish, deliciously macabre treat, as it's the best horror film to come down the pike in some time, but why the hell did Warner Bros. delay the release and send it on directly to DVD?
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
100 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
No horror title will be harder to forget than "The Midnight Meat Train," which sounds like a raunchy porno. And for being barely released by its distributors, this gory, slick, well-shot horror thriller is more worth the wait than not. Bradley Cooper plays New York vegetarian photographer Leon, growing obsessed with a mysterious butcher who takes the late-night subway train in a business suit and may or may not be responsible for the disappearances of missing people. This gives a whole new meaning to slaughtered meat.
J-horror director Ryuhei Kitamura, in his Hollywood debut, has a stylishly moody visual style and manages some queasily amusing, over-the-top gore scenes that aren't quite as tortuous or punishing as the "Saw" or "Hostel" pictures. But after an engaging first three quarters, this Clive Barker short story grows more outlandish, until jumping the shark into some sort of bizarre, H.P. Lovecraftian conspiracy/monster hokum. If anything, Cooper gives a forceful performance and Vinnie Jones is terrifyingly imposing (and wordless) as the killer Mahogany. Leslie Bibb is fine as Cooper's concerned, devoted girlfriend, while Roger Bart otherwise goes to waste as his friend Jurgis, and Brooke Shields appears in about three scenes as a sultry art-gallery investor. Look for Ted Raimi in a fun little cameo—before he loses his head. "The Midnight Meat Train" should please horror gore fans, so maybe that's enough.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007)
92 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Not since Wes Craven's "Scream" has a movie deconstructed old-school slasher flicks so inventively as "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon." A smart, self-referential, and entertaining post-modern take on the genre, it's the mockumentary Christopher Guest never made, set in a world where Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers really existed.
Fred, Jay, and Mike were not hacks in their line of work, you see. Hoping to follow in the hometown maniacs' footsteps, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel, playing the hell out of his role as darkly comic and complex)—who's mythically thought to have been killed by local residents years ago in his sleepy Maryland town of Glen Echo—agrees to be the centerpiece of a documentary made by aspiring grad school journalism major Taylor (Angela Goethals). As Taylor and her crew follow him around with the camera, Vernon stalks his virginal “Final Girl” (Krissy Carlson) and shows the students all the pre-planning that goes into choosing his hormone-driven teen victims.
Although the climax more or less turns into your standard slasher pic that's being skewered, writer-director Scott Glosserman's doc-horror-comedy is well-performed, suspensefully laced with an ironic sense of a humor, and has playfully funny commentary on classic horror conventions. Wait until the end of the credits for a winky joke, cued to Talking Heads' “Psycho Killer.” An indie treat ready-made for genre fans, with Robert England (as a Donald Pleasence-inspired psychiatrist), Zelda Rubinstein, and Scott Wilson (of the "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Poltergeist," and "In Cold Blood" fame, respectively) rolled into the fun.
The Descent (2005)
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Neil Marshall's "The Descent" is a nifty little Brit-horror import. A woman (Shauna Macdonald) agrees to a weekend getaway with her five other adventurous girlfriends deep in the Appalachians following a tragic, "Final Destination"-status freak car accident, losing her husband and daughter. Trapped in an unknown cave system with no visible way out, the six face fear and paranoia, until something else hinges on their survival. Marshall's expert direction and convincing performances from a feisty female cast steer this harrowing, claustrophobic, and scary horror film. Marshall imbues it with creepy atmosphere, edgy suspense, and an unapologetic splattering of bloody gore. While the first half is more suggestive, "The Descent" shifts into more literal monster-horror mode like "Alien" in favor of freaky cheap shocks, but boy do they work—and scare the bejesus out of you.
Wolf Creek (2005)
95 min., rated R.
Nothing screams stocking stuffers and good taste like "Wolf Creek," a slasher film released on Christmas day, the holy day that our Lord and savior Jesus Christ was born. Ho, ho, ho! It's purportedly "based on actual events," but more of an “Aussie Chain Saw Massacre” since the account comes from the testimony of one survivor who wasn't even around for much of it.
OK, so here's the deal: two British women, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), and an Australian bloke, Ben (Nathan Phillips), finish off their two-week backpacking tour across the Outback at Wolf Creek, a site where a meteorite once hit. But after their car won't start, they seek help from their savior, a seemingly jaunty trucker named Mick (John Jarratt)—and that's where their innocuous vacation ends. When the young travelers ask what Mick does for a living, he answers with "I could tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya," which should be their clue to run.
Writer-director Greg McLean's genuinely tense and savagely grisly horror film is believably acted and rawly, crisply visualized, heightening the reality of an unsettling situation and making the dusty heat tactile. However, it ultimately ends up being a brutal, bleakly depressing exercise in desensitivity to torture, misery, and degradation. To its credit, the traditional "Wolf Creek" has no cheap scares or any post-modern "Scream" touches like its characters talking about being in a horror-film setting, although they do lose their intelligence as it goes along (but wouldn't you?). And Jarratt is particularly eerie as the Mick Dundee with a few screws loose.
The deliberately paced forty-five minutes commendably develop its later-victimized characters with economy and relative appeal that when the film finally does kick into gear, it becomes an effectively horrific study in terror. At its worst, this Aussie psycho pic manages to be misanthropic, misogynistic, and mean-spirited with a disturbing disregard for life, even for slasher fodder. The squeamish is advised to stay far, far away, unless you're inclined to find out what a “head on a stick” looks like!
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
98 min., rated R.
The crossover concept of "Freddy vs. Jason" has been off and on in development for fifteen years. And now, the wait is over for Fred-heads and Jason-ites, so place your bets to see your men rumble in "Freddy vs. Jason," a horror fan's long-incubating wet dream. Sure, both Freddy and Jason have been wiped out as many times as Kenny on “South Park," and yeah, both slasher icons' franchises, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th," have always been more about the slicing and dicing than plot or characters. But to much surprise, this high-concept summer mishmash finds a way to combine both series with a surprisingly clever story setup.
Pizza-faced dream stalker Freddy Krueger (the one, the only, Robert England) is desperate to hack up some more children on Elm Street, so he manipulates ice hockey's most pissed-off goalie, big, dumb Jason Voorhees (stuntman Ken Kirzinger) through his dreams to wake up from the ground and dispatch blonde teen Lori (Monica Keena) and her nubile friends (Kelly Rowland, Katharine Isabelle). Meanwhile, Lori's long-lost friend Will (Jason Ritter) busts out of the mental instituion with his friend Mark (Brendan Fletcher) to warn everybody that Freddy is back to kill in their dreams. But when Freddy realizes Jason is stealing all his kills, the kids find themselves stuck in the middle of the two killers squaring off.
Ironically, "Freddy vs. Jason" overcompensates with too much pass-the-time plot, but under Hong Kong martial-arts guru Ronny Yu's slick, lively direction (so slick it's a surprise Michael Bay had no part in the production), the big-budget effects are more than efficient and pace breakneck, and delivers the bloody horror goods for the devoted. A cornfield rave party is a highlight.
First-time writers Mark Swift and Damian Shannon's overplotted script interweaves both Freddy and Jason's mythologies with a deft hand and has some wickedly tongue-in-cheek wit. Also, the teens are more appealing and developed than the basic stereotypes usually on the chopping block in these movies, although there are some that you can't wait to meet Jason's machete. Destiny's Child starlet Rowland, especially, is a hoot as Lori's sassy, looks-obsessed friend Kia.
"Freddy vs. Jason" is certainly a slash above most of the countless sequels in either franchise, and yet fans (only fans will be paying to see this) will have to wade through an hour or more for the cheesy, WWE-style monster-mash duel set on the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake. Fans should get a kick out of the winky "Apocalypse Now"-inspired ending for sure. It's not really scary but a lot more fun than most.