Sunday, October 31, 2010

"My Bloody Valentine" lots of bloody, 3-D fun

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009) 
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

The understandably neglected 1981 slasher pic "My Bloody Valentine" is probably one of the last movies that needed a reprise, but this do-over is a shamelessly bloody, cheesy hoot, laced with the latest gimmicky 3-D technology as a bonus (get your glasses at the video store!). The small Pennsylvania town of Harmony hasn't celebrated Valentine's Day since six miners died in a cave-in caused by the owner's son (Jensen Ackles); the sole survivor, Harry Warden, hacked up a bunch of partying teens in the mine and shortly after Ackles left town. Ten years later, Ackles comes back to sell the mine and reconnect with his ex-girlfriend (Jaime King), who's now married to his old rival/the sheriff (Kerr Smith). Then someone dressed as a coal miner with a gas mask goes pickaxe-happy and starts painting Harmony red. 

Patrick Lussier directs "My Bloody Valentine" in 3-D, never taking an ounce of it seriously but giving us a good bloody time, with moderately clever, in-your-face kills and gory shocks, as even an axe and body parts are flung at the camera like you're in the front row of a crazy Gwar concert. In 2-D, the movie offers nothing we haven't seen before, but it is a free-wheeling, gleefully exploitative drive-in throwback to the genre heyday, and much more fun than the usual “gorenography” out there today. Even though we don't go to these kind of movies for acting, logic, or story construction, the acting is on par with '80s B-movies and the whodunit story isn't entirely obvious. 

This in-name-only remake hasn't the deepest intentions but does what it sets out to do, with fun scares, laughs, and some tensely creepy set pieces, especially a chase in a grocery store. The uninhibited Betsy Rue should earn some sort of scream-queen prize for her scene of gratuitous nudity as token slut Irene, courageously running around—for a whole five minutes—in her birthday suit until her “close-up.” It's also a nostalgic treat for fans to see '80s horror veteran Tom Atkins ("The Fog," "Creepshow," and "Halloween III") popping up as Officer Burke. 

Making of "Monsters" impresses, and that's about it

Monsters (2010) 
93 min., rated R.

Warning: the sci-fi indie "Monsters" contains very few monsters. Even after we do get a glimpse of them, the film is surrounded by so much “character-driven” talky talk and hollow pretensions. The said monsters are aliens, which resemble octopi from H.P. Lovecraft's imagination, that reside on our planet in a quarantined area of Mexico known as the “Infected Zone.” Through title cards, we're told that six years ago, NASA launched a space probe that crashlanded into the Mexican jungle and the extraterrestrials expanded through human territory. Photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is in Central America to get photos of the creature aftermath, but gets a call from his publishing boss to find his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) and get her home to the walled-off United States safely. Needless to say, their journey home will be harder than expected. 

With a next-to-nothing budget, "Monsters" is a well-made little movie that does show writer-director-cinematographer-production designer Gareth Edwards' resourceful skill for this guerrilla style of filmmaking. The effects are impressive for the fact that Edwards created them on his computer with basic software. And the desolate landscapes are beautiful. It's an intriguing premise too, but the film's spare treatment doesn't work up enough of the necessary urgency and tension. It's something of a road movie where not much really happens until the final 10 minutes. Edwards reportedly didn't intend for a social commentary on illegal immigration, but it's pretty on the nose, especially when the the two characters stare at the giant wall separating Central America from Texas and Andrew goes, “You know, it's different looking at America from the outside, in.” 

Real-life husband and wife McNairy and Able are natural performers, although their stilted dialogue and uninvolving characters compete with us trying to connect with them. Andrew and Sam are drawn a little through their mumblecore-style conversation (he has a son at home and she has a fiancée that she doesn't seem too enthused about seeing). Andrew's arrogance just becomes annoying and there's little backstory to either being. Especially in the wake of other, better films like "The Mist," "Cloverfield," and "District 9," "Monsters" is too dull and uneventful, despite Edwards' best efforts for his first feature. 


"Paranormal Activity 2" delivers spooky chills

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
91 min., rated R.

Repeating the same “Demand it!” campaign as its predecessor and favoring silence and waiting and suggestion over an annoyingly loud soundtrack, obvious effects, and gore, "Paranormal Activity 2" will still leave you with a jittery feeling. Set in 2006, two months prior to the San Diego hauntings with Katie and Micah in Paranormal Activity, this one also delivers the jumpy spooks with restraint (and the bickering couple appears every now and then). The concept is the same, but centers on Katie's sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), who has a homecoming with her husband, Daniel (Brian Boland), and their newborn baby Hunter. There's also a Mexican maid (Vivis), a dog, and teen daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) from the dad's previous marriage. After what looks like a break-in (with nothing stolen besides Kristi's necklace that her sister gave her), the family install security cameras in six spots around their Carlsbad, California house. No, it's not just the house settling. All together now: they're back! 

Director Tod Williams expands on the scope and budget of Oren Peli's first movie (he's just producer), and what starts out as family home videos transforms into some pin-droppingly creepy imagery. Pots fall from their hooks, kitchen cabinets and drawers suddenly fly open, doors open and shut, a bottom-feeding pool cleaner always moves itself out of the pool every morning, the dog barks at unseen forces, and the baby's blanky gets dragged off of him in his crib. Sure, the obvious logical question still stands: Why doesn't the family just resurrect Father Merrin to do an exorcism, get the hell out of the house, and drive far, far away in their mini-van? 

But try not covering your eyes during the nightly surveillance tapes and skipping-ahead time code (your eyes will be stuck on all four corners of the frame), or try watching this in the cold. "Paranormal Activity 2" is an effectively shivery companion piece, a prequel of sorts, even if the ending is abrupt (as most of these faux-documentaries are), that cleverly ties itself together with the original. It's a scary trick.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A look at "Last House on the Left": The Remake Wins Out

The Last House on the Left (1972) 
82 min., rated R.
Grade: D

Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" comes the little horror-revenge shocker, "The Last House on the Left." It's arguable what's worse: the inept production values or the controversial, extremely sick nature of it all? You decide, but a pair of young women on their way to a concert are raped, tormented, and killed by a Manson-type gang of sadistic fugitives. As coincidence (or plot manipulation) would have it, the murderers later end up facing gruesome retribution from one of the girls' wholesome parents who live in the last house on the left in the woods. They should've stayed right. 

What an ugly, exploitative, feel-bad piece of business that'll have you wanting to take a shower afterwards...and as said, it's not even well made in a technical sense. Debuting filmmaker Wes Craven, who had to start somewhere, means to evoke a disturbing power through his unapologetically grim depiction of our violent society during a Vietnam era. Too bad the coarse filmmaking leaves none of the sadism to the imagination, stabbings, rape, and castration included. However effectively unsettling the film is, emphasized by the tune “The Road Leads to Nowhere,” the brutality is still repugnant and consistently hard to take. 

Misguided comic let-ups between a pair of doltish, useless cops and chipper bluegrass music by David Hess (who stars as the killers' leader, Krug) awkwardly belong in an entirely different movie (or planet). "The Last House on the Left" is a total turnoff to the faint of heart, but horror fans may unclearly get jazzed by this glorified snuff film. 

The Last House on the Left (2009) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

As amateurish, scuzzy, and desperate-to-shock as Wes Craven's 1972 cheap film debut "The Last House on the Left" was, it left immeasurable room for improvement. Hence, this brutal, uncompromising, strongly acted remodel (which Craven produces). Surgeon John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and his protective wife Emma (Monica Potter) take their 17-year-old swim-champ daughter, Mari (Mischa Barton lookalike Sara Paxton), to their lakeside vacation home, a year after their son died. Just after unpacking, the teen asks to take the car to town to hang out with girlfriend Paige (Martha MacIsaac, the naïve lush from "Superbad"); the young ladies' pursuit for pot from a boy their age in a cheap motel leads to being kidnapped by his psychotic family, led by his escaped convict father, Krug (Garret Dillahunt). 

As in '72, both women are tormented, but only Paige is killed, while Mari is left for dead in the lake. That same night, a rainy, stormy night in fact, the psychos coincidentally find shelter in the guest house at 'the last house on the left'—Mari's parents'. They think John and Emma are sweet and helpful, giving them a cup of hot cocoa and blankets, until the rents realize they're hospitalizing their baby's assaulters and explode with a sneak attack of gory, resource-ready retalitation. 

Greek director Dennis Iliadis' American remake has one up on its cheap predecessor in terms of technical production, being dexterous with his camera, while keeping its fidelity with Craven's original. Actually taming down the exploitation of the rape and murder scene in the woods, the attack is nevertheless disturbing and hard to stomach, without feeling gratuitous, where you can feel every punch of violence and the urgency of tension. Rather than close-ups of the stab wounds, we see the girls' faces of vulnerability, inner strength, and despair, which makes us hate the heinous killers, only to further root on the Collingwood's revenge under their own homey roof and give it catharsis. 

Even uncommonly better acted than the original by far, Paxton is very good as the strong Mari; Goldwyn and Potter credibly portray parents who would do anything for someone they love; and all of the psycho family members are well-cast (Spencer Treat Clark as unwilling son Justin, Riki Lindhome as vain girlfriend Sadie, and Aaron Paul as sleazy brother Francis). Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth's script rightfully exise the “comic relief” of the cops (and Iliadis gets rid of the upbeat banjo soundtrack), but changes Mari's fate and adds the deceased son's locket. "The Last House on the Left's" final act is a bit repetitious and only does it go too far in its over-the-top ending (involving a broken kitchen appliance telegraphed in early scenes), which is somewhat of a sick crowd-pleasing joke and just seems tacked-on. 

Not exactly a good time or morally defensible, but alternately, it's a mature piece of horror filmmaking for such a disreputable genre and basically sleazy material. And hey, there is a cautionary moral if you look hard enough: don't let your kid take the car and don't take weed from a stranger with a loony family! 

Halloween Edition Capsules: "The House of the Devil," "The Loved Ones," "Trick 'r Treat," "The Midnight Meat Train," "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon," "Wolf Creek," "The Descent," and "Freddy vs. Jason"

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.
Grade: B 

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.
Grade: B

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. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

John Carpenter's "Halloween" still remains classic

Halloween (1978)
90 min., rated R
Grade: A

The mother of all scary movies, John Carpenter's Halloween is an effectively scary and tasteful low-budget horror thriller, which went on to become one of the highest grossing independent films. 

Story is compact but focused and mystical, with “pure evil” masked murderer Michael Myers killing his sister as a young boy and then escaping the asylum, only to return home to his Haddonfield, Illinois town fifteen years later to target teenage babysitters and start up another killing spree. 

This is the film that has spawned so many clones and imitations that never come close; Halloween has no graphic blood, gore, or special effects, just honest jack-in-the-box scares and dreaded suspense, and in-joke references that are fun to spot (i.e. Sam Loomis named after Janet Leigh's boyfriend in Psycho). It popularized the horror clichés before they actually became...clichés: victims having no peripheral vision, sex equaling death, and the killer who can't be killed. 

The one-take POV opening is elegantly filmed in the subjective eyes of the killer as he stalks his older sister and her boyfriend, grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen drawer, and goes on upstairs to stab his naked sibling repeatedly. 

Myers' mask, which was a William Shatner face sprayed white, is hard to shake, as well as Carpenter's truly hair-raising (if simple) original synthesizer-music score which remains the film's strongest asset. Carpenter has his DP, Dean Cundey, making great use of the the widescreen framing that never wastes space, with Myers showing up anywhere. 

Jamie Lee Curtis as victim Laurie Strode marks her territory in this film as the horror genre's most memorable "scream queen," Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles acquit themselves appealingly as Laurie's stalked friends, giving them more personality than the slasher-pic norm, and Donald Pleasence is wonderfully histrionic as Dr. Loomis. 

Let's just admit it, Halloween may be small but it's the quintessential slasher picture that less is more. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Eastwood's "Hereafter" has challenging ideas but little impact

Hereafter (2010) 
129 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Clint Eastwood as a director and an octogenarian never repeats himself, although all of his films are character-driven, and that goes for the relentlessly solemn "Hereafter." It's a more pensive and spiritual if less silly "Final Destination," but that sounds like a backhanded compliment. The film gets off to a spectacular, intensely visceral bang right out of a special-effects disaster movie like, say, "The Day After Tomorrow," as a titanic tsunami pummels an Indonesian beach town, drowning thousands of its people and everything else in its path. Marie (Cécile De France), a rich, famous French TV journalist and host, is one of the survivors, and the film focuses on her before, during, and after this near-death experience. Why don't we follow one of the Indonesians instead? 

Matt Damon plays it close to the vest compared to the Jason Bourne movies but he's terrific as George Lonegan, a lonely San Francisco man working at a factory and living with a psychic gift that he considers a curse. He's tired of his younger brother (Jay Mohr) making him appointments with those that have lost and want to come in contact with loved ones. He meets a young woman (the striking Bryce Dallas Howard who's wonderfully wrenching in her short screen time) in a cooking class when partnered up, but their “cooking” relationship might be cut short when she learns of his powers and she suffers from her own personal loss. (Their blindfold taste testing scene has a sensual charge.) Meanwhile, in London, a pair of young twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (both played by George and Frankie McLaren at either time), try to hold their family together as their mother is a mostly absent alcoholic, until Jason (the eldest by 12 minutes) dies and struggling to navigate in the world full of frauds, Marcus desperately tries to contact his other half. 

These three disparate stories will eventually be intertwined somehow in "Babel"/"Crash" fashion. Eastwood's overreaches his hand with his intriguing, challenging goals when it comes to the disappointing conclusion—a clunky Classic Hollywood ending with Eastwood's saccharine musical score—that feels like a lot of effort for little payoff. Still, the performances are vivid and the unurgent pacing takes its time in letting us get to know these characters. Eastwood and his editors structure the film in a logical, consistent manner, from each tale to the next, and use interesting locations. 

The stories are compelling, with the twins' the most moving and holding the only complete catharsis of the three. And even if they all favor coincidence by a contrived design, Peter Morgan's script thoughtfully explores and questions life continuing after death in the hereafter and it's a bold move to not give us clear-cut answers. So it's not a total loss. "Hereafter" is rarely preachy but still, its lack of overall impact leaves one cold thereafter. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Demons" schlocky but not much fun

Night of the Demons (2010) 
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

"Night of the Demons," a tacky remake of the memorably fun 1988 cult cheapie, is passable schlock, with a fast pace, blaring punk-rock soundtrack, and the requisite gore and nudity: what more could a 17-year-old boy want? The primer gets things off to a gory-fun start in the style of a 1920s silent film. Then a group of Typical, Stupid Hotties go to a Halloween party in the old, creepy Broussard Mansion where some bad black-magic hoodoo took place, or as legend has it. Their kinky host (Shannon Elizabeth) is bit by one of seven skeletons in the basement, then seduces everyone until she turns them into horned, horny demons. Not all of them will survive the night from Hell. 

Some gleefully nasty bits include a demon ripping a girl's face clean off with her teeth and another where a demonic bimbo inserts a lipstick tube into her nipple and it comes out of another orifice. Obviously this isn't taking itself too seriously, but "Night of the Demons" doesn't deliver good scares or have a lick of wit, so it doesn't come off as horror or comedy, just trash. Nor does co-writer and director Adam Gierasch's uninspired direction for all the mayhem help much. 

Of the cast, Monica Keena is the nice girl (who wears a belly-button shirt but doesn't shave down south), but the actress's face looks surgically plastic. She has a few amusing one-liners once she turns into a badass, gun-toting heroine. A dumpy Edward Furlong has seen better days, here playing a drug dealer, Keena's ex. And if anyone saw the original, Lena Quigley makes a cameo as a naughty trick-or-treater greeter. "Night of the Demons" is the kind of movie you would just have playing in the background at a Halloween party. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Land of the Lost" a fun, bizarre goof

Land of the Lost (2009) 
101 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Abandon all you know about the '70s Saturday morning cult TV show by schlockmeisters Sid and Marty Krofft, the guys that gave viewers such a not-so-natural high from “H.R. Pufnstuf." That way you might just have a good time with "Land of the Lost," a completely indefensible but entertaining goof. 

Never leaving home without his idiot shtick, Will Ferrell is but less overbearing playing Dr. Rick Marshall, a “quantum paleontologist” who, despite flak from the mainstream media for being a quack, invents a time-warp device. Testing his tachyon amplifier at the Devil's Canyon, Marshall, his number-one-fan/assistant Holly (Anna Friel), along with mulletted, white-trash doofus Will Stanton (Danny McBride), are inadvertently dumped through a vortex into the prehistoric past. The plot, for what it's worth, mostly consists of our heroes running from dinosaurs and the menacing, rubbery Sleestaks, and trying to find their way home. 

Hats off to "Land of the Lost" for being a very weird, muddled movie: it's virtually a Will Ferrell comedy trapped in a kiddie adventure movie's body. From a script by TV writers Chris Henchy and Denis McNicholas, it's aimless and coarse, with jokes involving dino waste, a drug trip, and a monkeyman sidekick named Chaka (Jorma Taccone) that cops a feel of Holly's breasts any chance he gets. After a nostalgic vintage logo of Universal Pictures opens the film, only the outline of the TV show will count for fidelity's sake (Holly and Will are no longer Marshall's children). The effects are intentionally cheesy and '50s retro, and the whole film adopts an endearingly funky vibe. 

Just when you thought Ferrell's timing for the funny stuff was going out the door, he actually delivers some laughs here. He mugs, shrieks like a sissy, pours dino urine all over himself as “protection” from a T-Rex, and gets in touch with his inner gay when his science doohickey starts playing showtunes from “A Chorus Line.” Friel is a cute foil and straight man in shorty shorts and pigtails, and McBride's patented brashness gets more laughs here than he did in "Pineapple Express" (yes, I said it). In a recurring gag, Matt Lauer gives a deadpan-funny “good sport” cameo on The Today Show. 

Director Brad Silberling may never know what kind of movie he made or whom his audience is, but at least "Land of the Lost" is dumb, anything-goes fun, whacked-out by design and not the primitive T-Rex turd as expected.