Tag Archives: horror movies

If you’re planning a Norwegian vacation, beware the trolls

I think the whole found footage think gets unfairly knocked. It’s simply a story-telling device, something that isn’t inherently good or bad. When it’s well used – The Blair Witch Project – you end up with a solid film. When the story is weaker – Cloverfield – you get a final product that isn’t as interesting or compelling.

Enter Troll Hunter, a 2010 Norwegian film. Brief text at the beginning explains that everything shown in the film, as far as the people who found the footage know, is true. We first meet our plucky-if-naive college students, Kalle, Johanna and Thomas. They start out on a lark, looking for a poacher who has been killing bears in the area. After some poking around and a little luck, they come across Hans, a surly, secretive man who lives a nomadic life, sleeps all day and leaves at night, residing in a abnormally smelly camper with an inordinate amount of exterior lighting.

Following some Scooby Doo-like sneaking and shadowing, Hans fesses up: He is a troll hunter, Norway’s only troll hunter. Trolls are allowed to live in isolated parts of the country, but lately, the trolls have been wandering out of their safe habitats and into inhabited areas, leaving a path of destruction and death in their wake. It’s up to Hans to figure out what’s causing this problem, as well as killing any troll who reaches civilization.

At first, the kids think they’ve run into a madman who will make an awesome subject for their documentary. That is, until they are chased by their first troll. Then shit gets real in a hurry.

Troll Hunter‘s strengths are two-fold:

  1. The film plays less like a found-footage horror movie and more like a documentary. The kids get an inside look at troll hunting, the varieties within the species, how they do and don’t act like fairly tales would suggest, the bureaucratic red tape that is involved with each troll death. As the film unfolds, two other interesting stories begin to unfold: The length to which the Norwegian government will go to conceal the existence of trolls, and the toll this life takes on Hans, our titular troll hunter.
  2. Our main man Hans. Played by Otto Jesperson, Hans agrees to show the movie-making trio the troll world because, after years alone hunting them, Hans is tired of the coverup and the secrecy. A former soldier, he has killed these creatures for years, and it clearly haunts him. He has respect for the beasts, and he has had to do horrible things, some to protect humans, some to protect Norway’s business interests, and he wants no more to do with it. Hans is the real star of the show, and Jesperson’s portrayal – and the strong writing and direction of Andre Ovredal – gives Troll Hunter a strong anchor that keeps the film solidly moored in reality as things get more and more fantastic.

If your kids are OK with reading subtitles (I’m not sure whether there’s an English dubbed version), this is a film with some scares that isn’t too scary. And if you’re thinking about a trip to Norway and are a good Christian, you may want to reconsider it. The only thing trolls love more than the fresh, warm blood of a follower of Jesus is a good tire to chew on.

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New ‘Cloverfield’ outperforms original

There could be some spoiling going on. You were warned.

I won’t go extensively into the plot of 10 Cloverfield Lane or anything like that in this analysis. Honestly, you can get most of what you need to know to get you up to speed from the trailers.

That said, I do have some thoughts about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

  • Not enough can be said about the performances of John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. Goodman’s Howard is immensely creepy, but the question is “Is he weird guy next door who collects insects?” creepy or “Is he weird guy next door who collects insects and wants to sew himself a costume out of women’s skin?” creepy. Goodman balances his creepiness well and makes viewers uneasy about Howard’s next move throughout. Winstead’s Michelle is a survivor, constantly thinking about what to do next and probing Howard to see just how mental he is, alternatively hopeful and terrified. Gallagher’s Emmett is an underachieving redneck and the closest thing Howard has to a friend. Emmett’s casual reactions to Howard’s oddness help diffuse and temper Michelle’s fear and concern. The three together make for an unsteady, tense, volatile trio.
  • The original Cloverfield was an OK film, an attempt to use the found-footage style horror films have used effectively in more of a science fiction setting. But again, it was only OK. Bravo to JJ Abrams and director Dan Trachtenburg for upping the ante in the movie number two, going a different direction with the film, both stylistically and thematically. So many sequels are just a naked cash grab, a sucker’s bet. 10 Cloverfield Lane is the rare sequel that isn’t really a sequel – it’s more of a story told in the same Cloverfield-verse – and a film that surpasses its predecessor.
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‘Maniac’ (Or when good Hobbits go bad … very, very bad)

It's OK for boys to play with dolls ... just not this particular boy.

It’s OK for boys to play with dolls … just not this particular boy.

I have to admit, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Maniac.

Don’t get me wrong, this film has its flaws. For such a short film, it drags a bit in the second act. Maniac is also shot largely in first person, meaning we mostly only see star Elijah Wood’s face in reflections, which causes some awkward moments with regards to camera work. It works, but there are times it works better than others.

That said, I think the choice to shoot first person was fairly daring. What we really see is the world according to Frank (Wood), a loner who lives in the basement of the family business, a company that restores antique mannequins. Frank also has some serious mommy issues, problems that lead him to kill and scalp (not necessarily in that order) women so he can put their hair on mannequins, who become love interests … or nagging reminders of mom. The brilliance of the first-person camera works come when Frank kills. As he dissociates, the camera moves out of his perspective to show what he is doing as well as indicating that the nice if odd guy we know is no longer in charge, submitting to the will of his dark half. It’s a nifty little trick that works to perfection.

As Maniac played, I kept thinking this is a little of what it would have been like had Alfred Hitchcock chosen to shoot Psycho in first person. The mommy issues, the psychosexual dysfunction, the huge swings in emotion and state of mind, all on display for the audience, but hidden from the players. It personalized Frank in a way Norman wasn’t in Hitchcock’s classic.

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‘Mother’ has touches of David Lynch

What would this mild-mannered woman do to save her son?

What would this mild-mannered woman do to save her son?

I’ve said before that Joon-Ho Bong’s The Host is probably the second-best creature flick I’ve ever seen, trailing only Jaws. I’ve also previously expressed my affection for Bong’s Snowpiercer, a nice piece of sci-fi cinema.

But somehow I’d missed what might be Bong’s finest work so far, 2009’s Mother. The movie opens with titular mother, played magnificently by Hye-ja Kim (pictured above), standing in a field of wheat, dancing dreamily and emotionless, no one around to witness this except the viewers.

Upon seeing this, I immediately thought of Twin Peaks, the soon-to-be revived serial soap co-created by cinematic super-freak David Lynch. Whether it’s Audrey dancing by herself in the Double R or Leland crying and pleading for someone to be his partner at the bar of the Great Northern, Twin Peaks is my screen reference for all things related to weird dancing. Between the music and Kim’s movements, it seemed like it could have been pulled straight from the show.

As Mother unfolded, it continued to remind me a lot of Twin Peaks and what is probably regarded as Lynch’s greatest cinematic achievement, Blue Velvet. Both of Lynch’s creations deal with smashing the American, small-town mythos. America’s small towns are really not what Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show would have you believe. Yes, the serene, exterior perfection isn’t hard to find in the burgs and hamlets of the good ol’ U, S of A. But what lies underneath that facade is shadowy and disturbing, made more so because those who live there do their best to keep up the front and ignore the darkness.

Mother has a lot of that, the exposure of hidden sins in what happens to be a near-perfect place to live. Everyone knows everyone, the murder rate is nearly non-existent, eccentrics can be left to their own devices, even flourish in their own way. But as mother tries to clear her son of the murder he has been accused of, we see the classism, the small-town snark, corruption, bullying, underage prostitution, all of this which everyone seems to know is happening but refuses to confront in any meaningful way. Even those who appear to be innocents, as the tale unfolds, we find those people to be just as bad or worse than those in power.

The Host and Snowpiercer are flashier and more accessible, particularly for western audiences. But Mother is a work of great nuance and substance, signifying the work of someone who has greater depths to delve into. I can’t wait to see where Bong take audiences next.

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Is ‘Lords’ the best of Rob Zombie?

If you're in a creepy, blood red room with just a cross and a horrifying, unrecognizable beast, it's probably time to find a new apartment.

If you’re in a creepy, blood red room with just a cross and a horrifying, unrecognizable beast, it’s probably time to find a new apartment.

So if you’re here for the short answer to the titular question, the answer is this: No.

(SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

That isn’t to diss Lords of Salem, which despite every negative review and “Oh my God it’s a train wreck” warning aimed in my direction, I really enjoyed. But I’m not your average reviewer or moviegoer (or at least I’d like to think so). When things start to spin and Rob Zombie eschews more traditional narrative form to go abstract, weird and just plain gross, I’m willing to take that ride. And while I’ll admit the ending wasn’t satisfying, I end up feeling like the journey was worth it, for a number of reasons.

1. Zombie goes old school. The modern, enlightened America knows that the Salem witch trials were a bunch of self-serving, misogynistic, superstitious men taking out their own insecurities and hostilities on the women and girls around them. Zombie takes the traditional horror approach: Sure, the bulk of the women were innocent victims, but there was this one coven that was pure evil and really wanted to unleash the power of Satan on the earthly plane. It’s not very PC, but it’s that PC mentality that ends up biting everyone in the ass in the end. Francis Matthias (nice to see Bruce Davison), an author and authority on the witches of Salem, never once believes that any of these coincidences – the Lords of Salem references, Heidi Hawthorne being a descendant of witch-killing Pastor Hawthorne, the haunting tune (call it “Colonial industrial,” a mix of Francis Scott Key and Nordic dark metal), etc. – are anything more than coincidences … right up until one of the witches bashes his skull in with a skillet. Heidi’s pals, Whitey and Herman, believe Heidi has merely succumbed to pressure and returned to her addict ways, not suspecting something supernatural is at work. Zombie uses our enlightened, modern prejudices against us here. It’s a trick a lot of horror uses, sure, but Zombie does it smoothly, serving his tale well.

2. I don’t need to know everything. You know the main reason why the Dexter series finale sucked so much? The minds behind the scenes felt the need to explain everything. Instead of leaving us with the image of Dexter in his boat, his sister’s dead body next to him, waiting for the hurricane to swallow them whole, never knowing for sure if Dexter survives or not, we get that cheesy bullshit coda with Dexter now playing the role of the loner logger, which runs counter to everything the series set up as well as being just plain stupid. Viewers were given too much, and it left a nasty taste in our collective mouths. In Lords of Salem, I don’t mind that I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on. That’s sort of the point. Heidi, her pals, Matthias, the average Salem citizen has no clue what dark cloud hangs over their fair village. Zombie is putting us in an uncomfortable place of being lost in the dark, right there with the characters. The imagery is terrifying, not of this earth. It is a mix of heresy, putridity and the potential for violence. I don’t need to know who or what that midget, Frankenstein’s monster, turkey-looking thingy is. It ain’t good, that’s for damn certain. The harbingers with the dark, rotted cloth faces? I don’t think they’re here to welcome Heidi to the neighborhood. I find comfort in the fact that Zombie allows his viewers the opportunity to let their imaginations take the reins and run with it.

3. That scary hallway. A significant part of The Shining‘s appeal is how fully Stanley Kubrick incorporates the Overlook Hotel as a character in the film. Roman Polanski – while largely an overrated, obnoxious rapist – managed a similar vibe with the Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby. Heidi’s apartment building isn’t so scary, but her particular hallway is ominous, a portent of bad things to come. It’s creepy every time Zombie shows it. It isn’t quite as important to the tale as the Overlook or the Bramford, but it’s a nice touch and a centering point for Lords of Salem.

4. I get the feeling if the director was David Lynch instead of Rob Zombie, Lords of Salem would have been hailed instead of jeered. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. But it seems that Zombie’s fascination with white trash culture – something that is part of all of his on-screen work – gets derided because he isn’t viewed as having the intellectual and spiritual take that Lynch is known for while mining the same rural mindset for Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, etc. I’m not saying Zombie is better than Lynch or vice versa, but it feels like their views on the nasty secrets of small towns are not all that dissimilar. I think the real gap is in the perception of critics, some of whom may be a bit on the snobby side.

Sounds like I enjoyed the film, doesn’t it? But in the end, I would still argue that Lords of Salem isn’t Zombie’s finest, not because Lords is sub-par, but because Zombie has made two better films: 2007’s Halloween remake and 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. In Halloween, Zombie takes the original’s skeletal classic and adds some meat. It’s not the be all, end all of horror movies, but it’s worthy. The Devil’s Rejects is Zombie’s finest to date, creating a film where there is no rooting interest, the anti-heroes unworthy of victory or salvation, and the “heroes” just as irredeemable and low.

But I think Lords of Salem, while not Zombie’s finest film as a whole, may be his best effort as a visual storyteller. I respect that he continues to improve at his craft, and at the same time, I look forward to see what he does next.

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