Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rob Zombie's Canon: "House of 1000 Corpses," "The Devil's Rejects," "Halloween" (2007), "Halloween II" (2009)

House of 1000 Corpses (2003) 
89 min., rated R.

A Fangoria subscriber's fever dream, "House of 1000 Corpses" is shock-rocker Rob Zombie's execrable film debut. The founder and now ex-lead vocalist of White Zombie figured if Dee Snider of Twisted Sister could write a sadistic horror flick like "Strangeland," he could write and direct one, too. When are Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson gonna give it a go? While it is an occasionally striking first effort with some actual vision, this gonzo gore-show showcases Zombie more as film fanboy than filmmaker. 

In 1977, a bizarro Halloween night of mayhem ensues after two loud sci-fi geeks (Rainn Wilson, Chris Hardwick) and their whiny girlfriends (Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn) drive cross-country, intent on learning the Legend of Dr. Satan, make a regretful detour at an odd roadside attractions stop, Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen (for some fried chicken and gasoline). After some car trouble in the sticks in the pouring rain, a giggly, baby-voiced hitchhiker aptly named Baby (Sheri Moon, Zombie's real wife and an annoying acting neophyte) takes them back to her house, only to meet her family of Satan-worshipping crazies and sadists that makes the Bundys look like the Bradys. 

Madman Rob Zombie's retro death letter is a clamorous, repellent, over-the-top freak sideshow that's meant to raise hell with devoted genre fans (like Zombie himself) and harken back to the primal, down-and-dirty '70s exploitation days. But it's mostly a poseur of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" combined with a little "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and pieces of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Excessive profanity and gore are tiresome, piss-poor excuses for shocks and scares, and tasteless redneck/necrophiliac jokes are traded for wit. Zombie has garish, psychedelic visual style out of a deranged EC comic book to burn, playing with color filters and film negatives, scoring his own creepy, “Helter Skelter” music, and throwing in random cutaways and trippy sidetrips. At least the John Landis-esque clips to B&W monster movies are fun. Zombie's overdone aesthetics aren't enough as the movie becomes an unpleasant, self-indulgent, incoherent assault to sit through, much like one of his music videos. Just what Dr. Satan ordered. It's one thing to scare us and another to just beg us to be shocked and glamorize serial killers' work, such as torturing cheerleaders and slicing Rainn Wilson like a fish as the killers jam out to “Brick House" as a wicked counterpoint. 

Sure to earn itself instant cult status, this ballsy but artlessly callous crud is shock/camp overkill rather than a drive-in B-movie funhouse. Mr. Zombie gets pity points for giving his evil killers more personality than his victims, but that doesn't make the experience enjoyable, interesting, or scary. Including Sid Haig as the perverted clown Captain Spaulding, Bill Moseley as twisted, nihilistic ladykiller Otis, and Karen Black as yellow-toothsome madam Mother Firefly, the committed, free-wheeling cast of squalid, obnoxious carnies plays it for Bette Davis keeps, gnawing so relentlessly at the scenery that you expect them to foam at the mouth. Actually, one of the characters screams with his mouth full of food. Fun stuff! 

Much more interesting is the long history behind "House of 1000 Corpses," with Universal Pictures first refusing the movie in 2000 for being too horrific, but before long, Lionsgate bought it. Hardcore splatter-movie completists should dig this grody throwback after such a long wait, while everyone else will be repelled. 

Grade: D +

The Devil's Rejects (2005) 
101 min., rated R.

Rob Zombie's debut "House of 1000 Corpses" was annoying, self-indulgent, immature, and went wildly off the tracks into Dr. Satan's underground chambers. Now, his sequel-cum-spin-off "The Devil's Rejects" is stylish and gripping, trading its predecessor's psychedelic, pop-art horror (and dumping Dr. Satan dry) for a gritty western feel like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch." And it's for the better. That's not to say it's not just as nasty, violent, and revolting . . . because it most certainly is, and that's inherent in the genre.

For the second time, we follow the Firefly clan of homicidal sadists, having their rural slaughterhouse in the American Southwest raided by the police. While hooker-matriarch Mother Fireplay (Leslie Easterbrook) is locked up in jail, three of the remaining killers, Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), go on the lam and on another killing spree. Meanwhile, Sheriff Wydell (a wily William Forsythe) plans his vengeance for their murder crimes, one of which is personal.

For what it is, "The Devil's Rejects" does what a grimy, twisted, sadistic horror western should do. With the film giving us even more of a point-of-the-view of these deranged killers, who are later targeted by the sheriff, we still don't condone their actions but they show a bit more vulnerability than before. With Mr. Zombie's lovingly evocative influences of drive-in grindhouse B-movies, the heavy-metal undertaker shows real skill and wit, starting with his grungy, filthy visual style. This sick dude's sweet dreams are our nightmares, as he gives us the most horrific images that evoke the Manson Family. From a fantastic opening-credits scene with freeze frames over the Allman Brothers Band's “Midnight Rider,” to a set piece in a desert motel, Zombie has a vision for pure hell.

There's a terrific soundtrack selection of '70s southern-fried rock (even a tip o' the hat to Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left"), blacker-than-grease humor, and a powerful Thelma and Louise-inspired denouement so impeccably scored and edited in slo-mo to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Moseley and Moon Zombie are back, more menacing and less campy this time, with Easterbrook gleefully assuming Karen Black's Mother Firefly and an impressive supporting cast of cult veterans that really are at home here, including "The Hills Have Eyes'" Michael Berryman, "Dawn of the Dead's" Ken Foree, and "Carrie's"/"Halloween's" P.J. Soles. Haig has to be the scariest, scummiest, most leering clown in cinematic history as Captain Spaulding, giving Bozo, make that John Wayne Gacy, a run for his money.

A Groucho Marx-looking film critic gets poked fun at in one scene, but there's a gratuitous attempt at redneck humor on a chicken farm and every woman is either a whore or treated as a whore. All things considered, it is a sick film; disturbing, unrelentingly vile, and punishing to both its characters and us in the audience. Caveat: the R-rating is not to be taken lightly. Not defensible on a moral level, but as take-no-prisoners exploitation horror filmmaking, "The Devil's Rejects" is the scuzziest vomitorium of its genre, and that's meant as a compliment. 

Grade: B +

Halloween (2007) 
109 min., rated R.

In one word, why? If anyone had to needlessly remake John Carpenter's masterful "Halloween" from 1978, edgy musician-turned-filmmaker would have seemed to be the right man for the job. Now, after actually seeing Rob Zombie's "Halloween," fans of the original Michael Myers saga have a right to pull out their pitchforks. This "re-imagining" (or whatever Zombie wants to call the film for it to be its own entity) is a gratuitously crude, assaultive, and unrelentingly ugly pile of trash that sets out to reinvent the seminal horror classic and fails. Particularly in the business of remakes, more is always less, but Zombie tarnishes the simple craft of the original for purists. Worst of all, his film is a hundred times more harsh and explicit than Carpenter's version, however, being angrier and more in-your-face is not necessarily more terrifying. Horror movies should come with two separate reviews (one for fans, one for regular moviegoers), but writer-director Zombie's “revision” is a bastardization any way you slice it. 

As 2007's "Halloween" starts with a psychologically useless, foul-mouthed "backstory" that's intended to bring empathy to our killer, animal-slaughtering 10-year-old punk Michael Myers’ (Daeg Faerch) white-trash household is like 30 minutes of wallowing in a shrill, over-the-top carny act or a repeat of Harmony Korine's "Gummo." (The sleaze is laid on with such a heavy hand that dirt might actually appear under your fingernails as you watch it.) On Halloween night when he should be out trick 'r treating, the disturbed young boy puts down his candy corn, grabs a big kitchen knife, and kills off his sister Judith (Hanna Hall), the sister's boyfriend, and his mother's loutish live-in boyfriend (William Forsythe) in cold blood. Only the baby, Boo, survives. Michael is supposed to be "pure evil” incarnate rather than humanized, but we get it already, Mama Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) was a stripper, his older sis a slut, and his step daddy a gross, verbally abusive idiot, so his troubled home life made him do it! Even Ron Howard's rationale of The Grinch was more justified by comparison. We even get a stupid origin to He Behind The Mask wearing the white William Shatner face. 

The plodding second section has Mikey institutionalized for seventeen years and counseled by Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), until breaking out of Smith's Grove sanitarium to go back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Finally, the final third follows now-teenage baby sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her two yappy, oversexed girlfriends, Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris) being stalked by the giant killer (pro-wrestler Tyler Mane). This section feels like a rushed, condensed version of Carpenter's whole film and yet the chase never seems to end, with kill after kill and a whole lot of screaming coming on a pile driver. Throughout, Zombie seems to be in a hurry to get to the stabbings and then lingers on the suffering and blood-spilling way past the point of impact. The violence is so savagely brutal and repetitive that it leaves nothing to the imagination, sucks out the suspense, and just becomes desensitizing overkill. It doesn't help the prey being hopelessly underdeveloped that we don't care much about their fates, and that Michael wastes no time strangling or stabbing his victims. 

For a horror-fan filmmaker, Zombie has proven he has the artistic style and tools to shock us, even stamping a raw, grungy style on this project. (Again, he makes sure everyone's TV sets play old black-and-white movies, one recognizably being William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill.") There are several indelible images, particularly in the first section with young Mikey beginning his killing spree, but alas, "Halloween" grows numbing after a while, primarily from an obnoxiously kinetic camera that thrashes around and relies on too many tight close-ups. Tyler Bates' rattling musical score is often effectual, with some echoes of John Carpenter's memorable synthesizer, and shot-for-shot recreations of original sequences are evocative but inferior by comparison (Michael standing across the street from Laurie's school window and the "glasses over a ghost sheet" set piece). 

If Zombie was able to get appropriately wild performances out of his cast in "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects," his performers are poorly directed here. As 10-year-old Michael Myers, Daeg Faerch has the creepy stares down, but he's mostly ineffective, not really up to the task of playing such a depraved young mind. As Laurie Strode, the one we should be rooting for, Scout Taylor-Compton can scream like the best of them and conveys emotional hysteria well, but before then, her portrayal comes across as an annoying brat. The same goes for Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris, who turn Lynda and Annie into entitled bitches and are never as likable as the "totally"-saying P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, even though Harris played Michael's niece Jamie in two earlier "Halloween" sequels. Veteran Malcolm McDowell luckily isn't impersonating Donald Sutherland's Dr. Sam Loomis and mostly succeeds in putting his own spin on the role. Most surprisingly, the director's wife Sheri Moon (who thankfully cans her tiny Mini Mouse voice and whole banshee act from "House of 1000 Corpses") appears as Michael's caring mommy, and hasn't yet matured as an actress, but ironically shows the most humanity out of anyone on screen. The film is also packed with a "who's who" of cameos, including cult B-movie queens Dee Wallace Stone and Sybil Danning, respectively, as Laurie's adoptive mother and an ill-fated nurse, as well as Ken Foree as a doomed trucker and Danny Trejo as a nice janitor. Mr. Zombie might consider himself a huge fan of Carpenter's masterpiece, but this is an offensive love letter. It's as if he hadn't watched the incomparable original since 1978 and just wound up re-creating his Firefly family saga with Michael Myers. That's quite enough, Michael (and Rob). How depressing. 


Halloween II (2009) 
101 min., rated R.

Rob Zombie may love horror movies, but not since "The Devil's Rejects" has he shown much promise in actually making them. "Halloween II," Zombie's sequel to his heavy-handed 2007 prequel/relaunch, is more vile, unrepentant trash that again shoehorns in more excess and utterances of the “F” word than a trailer park ad nauseam. In lieu of remaking the 1981 hospital-set sequel, which is preserved for the film's top 20 minutes, this is an artless, barely coherent fusion of a stabfest, hallucinatory fantasy, and character drama. Only occasionally creepy, never scary, and almost always disturbingly brutal, "H2" doesn't even feel like a seasonal Michael Myers movie. It's more like another "House of 1000 Corpses" featuring Mr. Myers, a.k.a. another numbing assault on the senses. 

Masked mass murderer Michael Myers was shot in the head by Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) at the end of "Halloween," but now one year later, he's missing and presumed dead, even though we know he'll be up and walking again. Now, the towering, long-haired Mikey (Tyler Mane) is a grunting, animal-eating hobo (Sasquatch, is that you?); Laurie is a parentless, damaged hippie with a profane mouth on her and a Charles Manson poster above her bed; and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is an arrogant asshole obsessed with fame after writing and publicizing his book “The Devil Walks Among Us,” and being blamed for the boogeyman's killings. Practically dead in a psychological state and suffering bad dreams (that means bad dream sequences for us), Laurie finds out the killer is her long-lost-bro. For some thrown-in Freudian psychology straight from the Jason/Mommy Voorhees mythos, Michael himself is visited by awfully campy dreams of his ghostly white mother (Sheri Moon-Zombie, looking like she's all ready to go trick 'r treating), dragging along her symbolism-heavy white horse, and his younger self (Chase Wright Vanek) in a snowy land of grotesque pumpkin heads and skeletons. 

Rob Zombie does offer a few momentarily striking, even incendiary images amidst the griminess in 16 mm (Michael towering over a little trick-or-treater comes to mind), but wastes that style when his handheld camera has an epileptic seizure anytime a murder happens. Rather than actually creating suspense, Zombie is rather adamant about wallowing in the nasty brutality and suffering of each hard, repetitive kill, allowing us to feel every blow, that they're visually and aurally unpleasant. A nurse is stabbed repeatedly in the head. A naked woman's head is smashed into a mirror not once, not twice, but ten times (count if you think that's hyperbole), and a guy has his head stomped on 'til it smashes like a pumpkin. To prove his “point” further that he's a director with too much ego and no taste or artistic value, we get a scene cut between Laurie eating a veggie pizza and Michael slicing up a dog for dinner. For God's sake, we got it already! His misguided directorial choices of slow-motion, color desaturation, and flash frames are shrill and grating. Not to mention, nearly all of his characterizations operate in one mode: white-trashiness. 

Scout Taylor-Compton unimpressed the first time in her one-note portrayal of Laurie Strode, and here she goes through the hysterical wringer as a whiny, self-absorbed shell of a heroine who swears a lot. Danielle Harris reprises her role as Annie Brackett, who survived the first film with scars and now stays at home to cook meals for her sheriff father (Brad Dourif), but she has more touching, sympathetic notes than Taylor-Compton's Laurie. The film is naturally full of blink-and-miss-'em cameos, with Caroline Williams who played Stretch from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" as a nurse; Margot Kidder, wasted as Laurie's psychologist; and Betsy Rue on screen long enough as a country girl to scream and get stabbed. Like Michael's mask, "Halloween" was grungy and beaten, and now "Halloween II" is deterioration. 

Grade: D - 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: "The Campaign" exchanges satirical teeth for just enough belly laughs

The Campaign (2012)
85 min., rated R.

Right away on paper, a project that pits Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis against each other as two boobs in a political race sounds like outrageous comic gold. Recouping after 2010's annoyingly unfunny "Dinner for Schmucks" and returning to his political interests after his recent HBO docudrama "Game Change" about Sarah Palin, director Jay Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy ("The Other Guys") and Shawn Harwell (HBO's "Eastbound and Down") have no pretense of making a smart, spiky political satire with teeth. "The Campaign" is a Ferrell-Galifianakis comedy first and foremost, with its brand of broad, too-too crudeness passing for comedy these days, but it's still timely and scattershot-hilarious. Nowadays, the election process doesn't even seem like it can be satirized anymore. Remember congressman Anthony Weiner's "sexting" scandal?

Seeking his fifth term, clueless Democratic incumbent Cam Brady (Ferrell) runs for North Carolina's 14th District congressional election. He's slick and crowd-pleasing, with a seemingly All-American family in tow, but also phony, vulgar, and too big for his britches. His hair is more important than the people. When his scandalous phone call to one of his concubines leaks to the press, Cam's popularity goes down in the polls, leading to sweatshop factory billionaires Wayne (Dan Aykroyd) and Glenn Motch (John Lithgow) challenging Cam with another candidate. His unlikely opposing player turns out to be cheery, fannypack-wearing, pug-owning goody-goody Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Cam tries embarrassing Marty, but the do-gooder later proves he has a ton of fight in him to be as cutthroat as his dirty, win-at-all-costs opponent. 

If Ferrell's George W. Bush and Galifianakis fought for the congressional seat, "The Campaign" would be the result, with some traces of actual wit amidst today's lowbrow shock humor. There's an amusing montage early on, where Cam repeats what the people want to hear: "Our troops and our veterans…farmers…schools…audio installations specialists and window tinters…Filipino tilt-a-whirl operators are this nation's backbone." Political endorsements are pointedly spoofed, turning around Cam's controversy into a positive and then eventually extending to Cam and Marty's mud-slinging and one-upmanship to up their polls. Not much sophistication can be found here, but enough gags really hit, including but not limited to Cam's accidental punching of a baby (and somebody else who won't be named here), Cam's blasphemous butchering of the Lord's Prayer ("…give us this day our daily pizza and let us digest it…"), and the giggle-inducing aftereffects of him being bitten by a venomous snake at a church.

Ferrell and Galifianakis are both in their "usual" mode, but they are fully committed to creating these over-the-top buffoons. The former plays another lecherous blowhard but does it with his usual stupid-is-as-stupid-does braggadocio, and the latter is doing his usual effeminate shtick but at his most sincere and warmly likable here and makes the dumb joke of stumbling to open a door a funny one. The biggest surprise is Dylan McDermott, who taps into his unexpectedly sharp comic timing as Marty's ruthless, manipulative campaign consultant Tim Wattley. Jason Sudeikis is also sharp as Cam's manager and much funnier when he's playing a straight man. Lithgow and Aykroyd are fun to see as the sleazy "candidate creators," recalling Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche's Duke brothers from Aykroyd's "Trading Places" and the Koch brothers. Brian Cox is a hoot as the crotchety Mr. Huggins, who disapprovingly says his black-sheep son "looks like Richard Simmons crapped out a goddamn hobbit," and Karen Maruyama is an absolute scene-stealer, bending a stereotype as his housekeeper Mrs. Yao who gets paid extra to speak in an old Southern accent out of "Gone with the Wind." Finally, Sarah Baker is sweet and funny as Marty's pudgy wife Mitzi, especially in a family dinner scene where she, along with her two sons, must confess their secrets, and then when making a sex tape with Cam.

The level of humor might have as much subtlety as "a phonebook in a dryer" but it's not as witless or desperate as one would expect either. "The Campaign" isn't "Wag the Dog" or even TV"s "The Daily Show," nor does it really aim to be, but because of the two funnymen and supporting cast, it rips by with enough easy and broadly silly laughs at 85 minutes. The nicey-nice, truth-telling conclusion definitely could've used a dash of bitters, but this is Hollywood's version of politics after all. Though it's never going to be the quotable, re-watchable landslide that of Ferrell's other vehicles, namely "Anchorman" and "Blades of Glory," "The Campaign" almost consistently brings the laughs to gain enough approval.


Monday, October 29, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: "Ruby Sparks" charming and fresh

Ruby Sparks (2012) 
103 min., rated R.

On the surface, "Ruby Sparks" is "Weird Science," cooked together with "Xanadu," "Adaptation.," "Stranger Than Fiction," and "(500) Days of Summer," for the quirky Sundance set. A fanciful twist on the indie romantic-comedy, the film upends the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" archetype (if one believes that to be a "thing"), crosses life and art, and nestles deep inside the creative mind of a male writer. Coming off the success of their 2006 crowd-pleaser "Little Miss Sunshine," husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's follow-up is not only more charming, touching, and engaging than most shiny, manufactured romances that Hollywood rolls out, but it feels fresh and from the heart.

Writing wunderkind Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has no friends, except for his dog Scotty and his typewriter. Through his writing and what he tells his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould), he's been having dreams of a girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) that's he made up in his mind. Then women's shaving cream and a bra and panties turn up in his house, and the next morning, Ruby is real, or at least he can see her. He reacts accordingly, freaking out and running upstairs, but once she tags along with him in public, people can see her, too. "It's like that movie 'Harvey,' except she's not a giant rabbit!" Calvin tells his brother Harry (Chris Messina), but the writer just accepts it as magic (as do we) and falls for Ruby. At first, it seems like a dream to manifest the perfect girl he's written on paper, but can Calvin handle a real relationship with Ruby?

Written by Kazan, "Ruby Sparks" is not as gimmicky and preciously twee as it might sound. Rather than painting itself into a corner or strictly adhering to formula, Kazan's smart script goes to some unexpectedly dark and inevitably bittersweet places that play with the notion of separating our idea of the ideal person with the flawed person that's really in front of us. The ending almost negates what came before, but with a dash of hope, it's emotionally satisfying.

An item in real-life, Dano and Kazan share genuinely deep chemistry, which is a lovely sight given the bad luck some real-life couples have when attempting to ignite sparks on the screen. As Calvin, Dano presses on as an awkward, neurotic version of Woody Allen, but to box him in as that would be ignorant of his own likability and soulfulness. Of course, the film belongs to Kazan, a warm, radiant, vivacious, endearing, and adorable presence who draws Ruby with numerous notes. The character, a 26-year-old painter from Ohio, wears purple tights, doesn't have an actual job, and can make homemade meatloaf that's out of this world, so she is mostly a collection of "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" quirks, but that's presumably the point. By what Calvin types onto the page, she can be extremely needy, independent, severely depressed, act like an overjoyed child, and even speak fluent French.

The supporting cast is strong, too. One may disbelieve that Dano's Calvin came from the same gene pool as him, but the ubiquitous Messina is grounded and funny as the married, exercise-obsessed sibling who thinks Calvin knows nothing about women. Annette Bening, as the guys' earthy hippie mom Gertrude, and Antonio Banderas, as her furniture-making paramour Mort, are wonderfully offbeat and down-to-earth delights when Calvin takes Ruby to Big Sur for the weekend. Steve Coogan doesn't stretch his acting muscles much, but is reliably smarmy as Calvin's editor; Alia Shawkat has some fun playing the novelist's number one fan; and Deborah Ann Woll acquits herself well as Lila, the "heartless slut" of an ex-girlfriend for five years that left Calvin right after his father died and robbed him of his self-worth.

Cute and compassionate and then more thoughtful as it goes along, "Ruby Sparks" is a gently sweet little gem. It has all the qualities of a "sweater movie," albeit one that doesn't deny the prickliness of real-life relationships, which are never as perfect as the ones you dream existed.

Grade: A -

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Silent Hill: Revelation" a dreary bore; "Silent Hill" so-so in retrospect

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)
94 min., rated R.

An initially effective horror francise jumped the shark with last week's fatigued "Paranormal Activity 4," but the "Silent Hill" movies never really had a shark in the first place. Six years ago, the original "Silent Hill" (based on the Konami video game) amounted to a mostly joyless, overproduced 125 minutes of clomping around, vague storyelling, and impressive art direction with nightmarishly creepy imagery that seemed hopped up on psychedelic mushrooms. But it takes a dreary, senseless sequel like "Silent Hill: Revelation" to put into perspective just how underappreciated the first movie was. This unentertaining dreck purely exists for 3-D and box-office sales for the Halloween movie season, and offering any worthwhile revelations turns out to be a fruitless endeavor.

Soon to be 18, Heather/Sharon (Adelaide Clemens) has been having bad dreams and day visions about the ash-covered town and her demonic doppelganger, Alessa (played by the young Erin Pitt and then Clemens herself in Juggalette make-up). Her father, Harry/Christopher (Sean Bean), has moved them both to a new house after his long-gone wife, Rose (Radha Mitchell, appearing briefly in the mirror), brought their adopted daughter back to him. Used to changing schools a lot, Heather attends her new one with a chip on her shoulder and tries with all her might to disinterest another new student named Vincent (Kit Harington). She never dreams of actually going to Silent Hill, but when Dad gets kidnapped by the town's doomsday cult, Heather has no other choice but to enter the alternate reality with Vincent. Remember: when characters are warned never to go to Silent Hill, they go anyway.

No better but much worse than its 2006 predecessor, "Silent Hill: Revelation" rights few of the wrongs and repeats the same mistakes. Aside from sparing us with a leaner 94-minute run time, writer-director Michael J. Bassett (2012's "Solomon Kane") builds up to Heather's trip to the town with a lot of lollygagging and then insists on explaining everything through notebooks, newspaper clippings, and tedious expository dialogue. There's also some gobbledygook involving a medallion laughably called "the Seal of Metatron" that "unlocks the true nature of things," but none of it is clearly deciphered for it to matter. In case you missed the original, there's no need to panic (really, no need) because this one covers some of the Alessa/witch-hunt lore all over again. Unfortunately, even most of the visuals and grotesque creatures feel less disturbingly creepy and far more cheaply digitized the second time around. That goes for the pyramid-headed executioner and the busty, facially deformed nurses that orgasm as they swipe sharp tools at Heather and Vincent. 

Australian actress Clemens, who looks like the long-lost sister of Carey Mulligan and Michelle Williams, fills her duties just fine, but the wooden dialogue gives her no chance to rise above a TV-level performance. Ditto for Harington. As villainous townies, Carrie-Anne Moss and Malcolm McDowell are clearly slumming it: she sports Gandalf's hair but doesn't have any fun with the material, and the literally chained-up actor goes for high camp. Martin Donovan must have had some free time, so he clocks in to stand around as a private investigator (or, another exposition-spouting device) and then get killed off. The only returnees are Bean and Deborah Kara Unger, who shows up for a single scene to say "the darkness is coming!" as Alessa's ragged mother.

Atmosphere and scares are nonexistent, unless a Pop-Tart popping out of the toaster makes one jump. No matter how many times a horror movie employs flickering lights and shadowy figures walking past the camera, they feel tired even the hundredth time. Save for traces of Jeff Danna and Akira Yamaoka's memorably eerie score, the soundtrack has a noisy eek! for every moment something charges at Heather. One of the better set-pieces doesn't even exist in the ghostly town but in a shopping mall, and there's a niftily designed arachnid made of mannequin parts that deserved more screen time, but an amusement park-set climax is awfully lame. Though it deserved to go straight to DVD, "Silent Hill: Revelation" will most likely get the silent treatment in theaters anyway. A third trip to Silent Hill isn't necessary at this point.

Grade: D +

Silent Hill (2006) 
125 min., rated R.

Most movies based on video games suffer on the big screen when they have to be scripted and acted. "Alone in the Dark" was one of 2005's worst movies, and "Doom" wasn't much better. 2006 saw the spawning of yet another video game movie that is "Silent Hill," and it's more accomplished on a technical and visual level, but it still doesn't quite get there. Director Christophe Gans (2001's "Brotherhood of the Wolf") and screenwriter Roger Avary (2002's "The Rules of Attraction") try making sense of this video game-y world for non-gamers, but the finished product mistakes sloppiness and confusion for ambiguity. 

When her adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) begins sleepwalking and speaking of an obscure place known as "Silent Hill," desperate mother Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) ends up finding the place and losing her daughter inside the foggy, ash-snowing West Virginia ghost town. Her first clue to stay away should have been from a waitress' ineloquent warning, "Road don't go through no more." If Rose wants to find Sharon, she must "face the darkness of Hell," which includes Alessa (a fiendish Ferland), who could be Sharon's twin. Meanwhile, Rose's husband Christopher (Sean Bean) goes searching for his family in Silent Hill, where he's accompanied by a detective (Kim Coates), but there's no sign of them. 

Inspired by the Konami survival horror video game, "Silent Hill" sounds like it'd be an above-average "Twilight Zone" feature, but it's largely two-plus-hours of repetitive running around. Which seems to happen every fifteen minutes, a siren sounds over the town before "the darkness comes" and Silent Hill transforms into a black-as-ash otherworld. Walls decay, cockroaches chase Rose, a pyramid-headed figure drags around a giant knife, ghoulishly faceless nurses wield scalpels and seem to be doing the "Thriller" dance, etc. It'd be a lie to not call "Silent Hill" a great-looking production of atmosphere and surreal, startlingly nightmarish style, with some of the most imaginatively grotesque and truly hellish imagery seen in a long time. 

On the flip side, there might be too much CGI. Some of the darkly lit sets for this world are so obviously shot with a green screen that the danger rings hollow, preventing the movie from having much "there" there. And when Avary tries explaining the town and its witch-hunting fanatics with scratchy historical reels and expository dialogue, the backstory will still elude even the most close-watching audience member. Jeff Danna and Akira Yamaoka's musical score is at least effective, blending foreboding menace and vaguely innocent, off-kilter piano keys. Then there's the dialogue, which is so laughably stilted and state-the-obvious ("You saw that right?," "It's happening again," "They used to say this place was haunted…I think they were right") that it makes one wonder why Hollywood ever banned the making of talkies. 

Mitchell draws enough empathy—her Rose is a devoted mother who won't give up on finding her daughter—and because of her, we're never in doubt that Sharon really is hers, but the role merely asks her to clomp around with a flashlight or a lighter (which, with all the running she does, seems to never flicker out) and shout out "Sharon!" over and over. Alice Krige brings a sinister presence to the role of a Christian cult zealot named Christabella who sets "witches" on fire, but as the overly nosey Cybil Bennett, Lauren Holden's leather-clad cop wardrobe seems more designed for a strip-o-gram cop. 

It might be worth recommending as a purely hyper-visual horror film, but the slick visuals and fake blood are in the service of a lot of baffling nonsense at a needlessly long 125 minutes. 


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: "Excision" bold but too proud of its own grotesqueries

Excision (2012) 
81 min., not rated.

If John Waters, the Pope of Trash, calls your script "weird" (and co-stars), it must be really out-there. That's the case with writer-director Richard Bates Jr.'s "Excision," expanded into a feature from his 2008 short under the same name. This boldly perverse, outright disturbing, and twistedly sick horror-comedy-drama could be the aborted love child of David Cronenberg, Todd Solondz, and Waters himself, but like how a parent puts a child's test on the fridge, the film seems awfully proud of how repulsive and grotesque it can be. 

Without make-up or air-brush magic, TV's "90210" bombshell AnnaLynne McCord loses her fierce Elizabeth Berkley/Denise Richards-y looks to transform into Pauline. The 18-year-old high school student is just your average outcast: she's socially inept with acne and a cold sore forming on her lip…and she's mentally disturbed. Disappointing her controlling Christian mother, Phyllis (Traci Lords), and repelling her sexually active peers, Pauline only feels at home in her own world where she fantasizes about anatomy. She also wants to lose her virginity (on her period) and has no problem picking out the guy (Jeremy Sumpter) and telling him what she wants. With her little sister Grace ("Modern Family's" Ariel Winter) suffering from cystic fibrosis and in need of a lung transplant, how long will it be until delusional Pauline acts out her self-taught, do-it-yourself surgical fantasy? 

Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. comes up with a fresh enough angle for this disturbed-teen formula: Pauline is an outcast without really being a victim, nor is she a succubus à la "Jennifer's Body." She has a scary amount of self-confidence, telling the class bitch that she fears of getting an STD just by being in the same locker room as her, but it's very hard to relate to such a certifiable whack-job as Pauline. The first-time filmmaker handles the blackly comic tone well, pushes the envelope to the nth degree with abandon, and showcases a stylish visual sense. The art direction and bizarrely erotic/gory imagery are right out of an Elizabeth Bathory-styled Marilyn Manson video for Pauline's fetishistic, psychosexual dreams, which have blonde, drop-dead gorgeous McCord straddling corpses, sliding into a bathtub full of blood, and performing her own abortion. It's these nightmarish, garishly toned interludes that serve up the real gross-outs and emphasize the obvious point that Pauline needs to be lobotomized and/or locked up for good. 

Acting with a lantern jaw and sporting some greasy dark hair and untrimmed eyebrows, the de-glammed McCord has a lot of guts in taking on this sociopathic, totally unhinged anti-heroine. One can't imagine many other actresses signing on to play a character that sniffs a used tampon and licks the blood of a dissected bird, but McCord doesn't show a shred of vanity. Though this is being sold as McCord's coming-out as an actress, Lords gives the more impressive performance. What could have been played as one-dimensional and shrill, Lords is more accomplished as an actress than one would expect. Sure, she breaks her husband's balls, constantly dotes Grace but criticizes Pauline, and signs both daughters up for a cotillion class, but fears that she's becoming her own mother. (Roger Bart, as the emasculated dad, mostly shows up at meals but has little to do with the story.) Some other reputable faces show up in amusing supporting parts that basically amount to extended cameos: John Waters plays a reverend (isn't that an oxymoron?) that acts as Pauline's would-be psychiatrist; Marlee Matlin is funny without speaking a word as a school teacher; Ray Wise, as the high school principal, gets one subtle laugh with a George W. Bush photo in his office; and Malcolm McDowell shows up as the algebra teacher who has had it with Pauline. 

It's hard for a film to shock these days, especially when torture is tirelessly palmed off as horror, but "Excision" does just that in spades. Then again, some of the queasier moments border on immature bad taste, and Bates' first feature doesn't match the quality of Lucky McKee's 2003 disturbing and weirdly poignant masterwork "May," also a feature debut. While that film had more of an emotional center and left one feeling equally disturbed and heartbroken for its friendless title character (who stole body parts to sew together her own friend), this Grand Guignol just wants to get off on sex and blood (the raison d'être), sometimes at the same time, that it leaves a bitter aftertaste after its preordained conclusion. The bloody innards on display are truly unnerving, as well as Pauline's delusion that she's capable of performing surgery and means well. "Excision" prides itself on being nasty, which is fine if there's more beneath the surface, but too often does it just feel like a horror-flick geek going nuts with his canvas. The easily squeamish and those with a low threshold for the bizarro are advised to stay far, far away.

Grade: C +

Friday, October 19, 2012

Generic to incompetent on all levels, "Alex Cross" plays corpse on slab

Alex Cross (2012)
101 min., rated PG-13.

If there ever was a reason to see a prequel of novelist James Patterson's Alex Cross in his salad says, it'd be the chance to see Morgan Freeman reprising the FBI profiler from preposterous but very involving thrillers "Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came a Spider" in young-again makeup. Instead, it was someone's idea to see if Tyler Perry could handle the role, which should've been Perry's time to prove himself and convince us that he could be a leading man or even an action star. After "Alex Cross," it's not happening, so Mr. Perry will be back to writing his tonally inconsistent movies and TV sitcoms in no time.

In this origin story of sorts (based on Patterson's 12th book, "Cross," in his series), Dr. Alex Cross wants to make the transition from Detroit police detective and psychiatrist to an FBI profiler. Everything's going his way, capturing perpetrators, counseling prisoners, and being graced with the news that his wife Maria (Carmen Ejogo) is eight weeks pregnant. That is until a sick, torture-happy hired assassin (Matthew Fox), who calls himself "the Butcher," kills a female higher-up by paralyzing her and then cutting off her fingers. Based on the killer's trademark of leaving a charcoal sketch at the scene of his handy work, he is dubbed "Picasso" and diagnosed a "stimulus seeking, sociopathic narcissist" by Cross. But as soon as Cross and his team (Edward Burns and Rachel Nichols) aim to foil Picasso, they all find themselves, and their loved ones, on the supervillain's hit list. 

Carelessly directed, clunkily and generically written, and poorly paced, "Alex Cross" varies from a standard-issue TV movie to an incompetent hack work, but either way, it's boring and worthless as thrillers go. Neither director Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious" and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor") nor screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson help the situation. The Harvard graduate at the helm pathetically tries to fake the tension via shaky-cam when a secretary at the police department relays directions from her computer desk, and the mano-a-mano fight between Alex and Picasso in an abandoned movie theater is so junkily shot that we're robbed of any thrill or satisfaction. Every actor gets saddled with laughable dialogue, but the most embarrassingly melodramatic line goes to Perry: "I will meet his soul at the gates of Hell before I let him take a person that I love from me." 

Taking on the eponymous role, Perry goes out of his comfort zone, but he's more credible in drag as his infamously mouthy, gun-toting Madea creation. He's no Morgan Freeman and he's hard to buy as a police detective, so when having to wield a big gun or turn into Charles "now it's personal" Bronson mode, it's hard not to giggle. One exception: the man can cry real tears when he must grieve. As vicious, tatted killer Picasso, Fox has clearly stuck to the Medifast diet and P90X workout, starving and shredding himself into a lean, ripped killing machine, but he's also on an all scenery-chewing diet. Hamming it up to the rafters, Fox comes off as more of a sneering, crazy-eyed weasel with facial tics and 0% body fat than a menacing psychopath. Apparently, his Picasso is so slick he can escape from an elevator and come out of a sewer hole.

The supporting cast is handed no favors, either. In the sidekick role of Alex's childhood buddy and fellow detective John Sampson, Burns could play this part in his sleep but his banter with Perry is as dead as a corpse. His so-called secret romance with Nichols holds no weight either. Cicely Tyson, as Nana Mama, keeps most of her dignity intact when she's not hassling Alex like one of Perry's ball-busting characters ("Boy, get your feet off my bench!"). Finally, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno, and Giancarlo Esposito all go to waste.

The overly familiar plot meanders, threatening anyone watching to nod off, and it's hard to care about Alex's borderline-ESP tactics figuring into the investigation or his grief-turned-revenge M.O. Urgency and suspense dissolve faster than an ice cube in a hot drink; the one female torture scene tries to be exploitative within PG-13 restraints; and the explosions are gratuitous and overblown. And just as we think the movie is happily coming to a close, Alex assures us and his partner that "it ain't over." Cue the stupid, slapped-on, unnecessary plot twist that doesn't make a lick of difference. 

An inept thriller that can't be taken seriously but isn't even bad enough to have fun with, "Alex Cross" can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Maybe in the sequel of this prequel, Alex can play cat-and-mouse with Madea. Now there's an idea that should get the green light!