Tag Archives: horror

Welcome to wild, wild ‘Wyrmwood’

In the spoiler-heavy trailer above, one of the review blurbs calls Wyrmwood: Road of the DeadMad Max meets Dawn of the Dead.” Honestly, that sums it up pretty well.

It’s the zombie apocalypse, in Australia at least. If you don’t have the right blood type, then you turn into the walking dead. Cars are of no use because, it turns out, fuel no longer burns. There’s nowhere to run, few places to hide, and the last of humanity is drastically outnumbered. It’s pretty bleak. Hence, Dawn of the Dead.

Quirky characters abound, from The Doctor – a dancing madman doing experiments on those who haven’t succumb to the plague – to Benny, a goofy dude without seemingly much to offer other than his own special brand of foolish bravery. Toss in the unique armor, the altered vehicles (turns out, zombies belch fuel), the sped-up road scenes and more, and the Mad Max comparison is apt, as well.

But what saves Wyrmood from being completely derivative is the humor and the twist. Not only is the film funny, it’s not afraid to inject humor in truly dark moments, seemingly out of left field. The scene shown in the above trailer where our hero tries to shoot himself in the head, only to be out of nails in his nailgun, is not funny, at all. Until that happens, and then you’re laughing when you know you shouldn’t be. The twist I won’t spoil, but it’s a game-changer and not something I’ve seen used in a zombie flick, at least not the way it’s handled here. It is a tribute to director Kiah Roche-Turner and his co-writer Tristan Roche-Turner that it doesn’t just become a Mad Max knockoff with zombies, but is its own unique entity, and a fun one, at that.

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‘Knock Knock’ intense, frustrating

Here are the two reasons to watch Eli Roth’s Knock Knock:

  1. Keanu Reeves. Reeves gets knocked a lot for a lack of range. I prefer to think of Reeves as the DMX of acting: DMX doesn’t have the greatest range as a rapper, but he knows what he does well and he maximizes that. Reeves tends to be at his best reeled in, stoic, controlled. In Knock Knock, when shit starts to get hectic, we get to see cheating architect Evan (Reeves) rage against his tormentors, Bell (Ana de Armas) and Genesis (Lorenza Izzo). And when it looks like the deal is done, Evan’s fear is palpable. Even at his more subtle moments – such when Evan is trying to both be a polite host and keep himself from compromising his marital vows – Reeves kills it.  It may be the best performance by Reeves in a decade or so.
  2. This isn’t a horror movie. Don’t get me wrong: There are some traditional horror elements in Knock Knock. But really, the movie is an old school morality tale. Can’t resist temptation? Then you will pay, and you will pay dearly, even Biblically. Knock Knock doesn’t necessarily end how we, the audience, have been lead to believe it will throughout the course of the film. But one way or the other, Evan is ruined to the point where he might not ever come back from it simply because he wouldn’t remain faithful. I’m not a huge fan of Roth – I really like Hostel, am pretty lukewarm about Cabin in the Woods and Hostel Part II, haven’t seen Green Inferno and still think the best thing he has done was as an actor, the Bear Jew in Inglorious Basterds – but, save for one issue (see below), I was really impressed with his work here. Roth lays out the space of Evan’s home – our lone setting – impressively with the camera in the early going so we know the lay of the land once the action kicks in, and does a nice job of building the suspense and terror.

The lone drawback of Knock Knock:

  1. Rules, rules, rules. Genesis, the alpha female of our psychotic duo, talks frequently about rules. She mocks Evan for violating the bounds of marriage, noting that the lunacy she and Bell are raining down on him is the same punishment that they have given to other married men, none of whom have ever resisted the temptation of she and her sexy pal. Genesis punishes Evan for not answering questions, because it’s that time, and the rules are he has to answer her queries. And so on. The girls are very pointed about the necessity to keep to the rules, whether they are the accepted rules of matrimony or their own personal rules for this sort of encounter. But then the young women don’t follow their own rules. If the point is to punish Evan, why let Louis die? Louis, a friend/co-worker of Evan’s wife, shows up to gather some of her work for her gallery exhibit. The girls steal his asthma inhaler, work him up to the point where he has an attack, he loses his footing and falls, slamming his head into the heavy base of a sculpture and dies. Louis isn’t unfaithful. Louis isn’t really an ally of Evan’s. He’s just a guy doing a job. Then why is he punished? Sure, you can argue the girls are psychopaths, so of course they kill him and laugh at his death, because that’s what psychopaths do. But if you’re going to have killers with rules, the killers should follow the rules. Louis isn’t the target, and his death doesn’t really punish Evan (although it could have repercussions for him beyond the scope of the movie). It seems to be an arbitrary violation of the structure set forth by the killers and the filmmaker, undercutting what’s been established, and one that doesn’t really do much to further the story.
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5 reasons to watch ‘Stranger Things’

5) The boys. Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike … er, sorry, that’s Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will take us 80s children back to Goonies or Stand By Me, in that they have the dumb, goofy kid way of relating to each other. It doesn’t seem scripted or forced, just your average four junior high kids who don’t quite get girls yet and are far more interested in the next weekend’s D&D campaign than the school dance. The teen boys and twin love interests of Mike’s sister Nancy – played by Charlie Heeton and Joe Keery – also each bring something interesting to the proceedings after coming off as the stereotypical outsider and jealous boyfriend in the early going. Terrific casting.

4) The girls. Millie Bobby Brown plays a weird, creepy girl who is more than she appears. She’s had practice: She was also a weird, creepy girl who was more than she appeared in the BBC science fiction drama Intruders from 2014. However, this is a different kind of creepy. Her Stranger Things character, Eleven or “Elle” as the boys take to calling her, is a lost puppy with great powers who doesn’t quite understand how she fits into the world, whereas her Intruders character, Madison, was far more menacing and violent. Either way, Brown kicks ass. Natalia Dyer brings some depth to Mike’s teen sister Nancy, and really brings it when the shit hits the fan. And I’m tossing Winona Ryder in here, too, although calling her a “girl” might seem a little demeaning for someone who is a year older than I am. I don’t think I’d seen Ryder in anything since Black Swan, and she still has an amazing screen presence. Her role as the mom of a lost child could have easily succumbed to silly melodrama in some over-the-top manner by a lesser actress, but Ryder keeps it grounded in a situation where that’s not as easy as it sounds. Hope to see her hauling in a best supporting actress Emmy next year.

3) The music. The soundtrack is great, full of 1980s hits and re-workings – such as a Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s Heroes – that really help set the scene. You’ll never listen to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? the same way again. The score by Survive is another thing entirely, frequently reminding me of classic horror of the era, particularly – but not limited to – Halloween. The story and the acting are both great, but the music is like sweet, creamy icing on top of the best cake you’ve ever eaten.

2) The 1980s. No cell phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no online gaming. It helps build the tension when you can’t reach out to everyone all at once. The over-sized walkie talkies were a great choice, both for believability and the visual, showing just how far tech has come in 30 or so years. The hair and the fashion, as well as the design of the automobiles … it’s like watching news footage from some suburban documentary in 1983 or something. It’s akin to what’s done on FX’s The Americans, the level of detail used to properly set the scene.

1) The end. As we were watching the show come to a close, my daughter asked, “Is this going to be the only season?” I mused that maybe it was going to be more of a single-season anthology show, like American Horror Story. But then two things happen, and suddenly there’s potential for so much more ahead with the same gang from Hawkins, Indiana, that we’re now so invested in. Well played.

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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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Raise a glass to ‘The Final Girls’

The quick Final Girls review: Pleasantville meets Scream.

The Pleasantville angle: Max (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story) is the daughter of actress Amanda (Malin Akerman, Watchmen), who is known mainly for her one role in the cheesy horror film, Camp Bloodbath. Years after her mom dies in a car crash she survived, Max and friends attend an anniversary showing of the slasher flick. Mid-movie, the theater catches fire. Max and pals cut through the screen, hoping to escape backstage, but instead ending up in the film itself. It’s a fun conceit, and since the kids know what happens throughout the film, they are forced to go with the flow and hopefully ride it out until they can return to the real world.

The Scream angle: The kids not only know Camp Bloodbath, but understand the horror tropes themselves. For example, they, too, must avoid the traps that attract the machete-wielding killer: Nudity, sex, drinking, drugs, general stupidity. For some, it ends up being harder than it sounds. The gang uses some cliches to their advantage, such as the flashback, while doing their best to battle through others, such as the slow-mo shown above. Eventually, Max is the last kid standing, the titular final girl who must do battle with mad killer Billy Murphy, a duel to the death.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson balances the humor and blood deftly, and the casting – including Adam Devine (Workaholics, Pitch Perfect), Alexander Ludwig (Hunger Games), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), etc. – is spot-on. If you’re a fan of comedic horror or the horror genre in general, The Final Girls is worth a watch.

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‘Cooties’ is child’s play

My kids had a ball with Cooties.

Cooties is the story of Clint (Elijah Wood), an aspiring novelist doing a summer school substitute teaching gig at the school he went to as a kid. Unfortunately for Clint, some toxic chicken nuggets from the local processing plant have been consumed by one of his students, who is about to go full-on 28 Days Later on her classmates, who, after they turn, start to look at school’s faculty and staff as a potential food source.

A solid cast – including Rainn Wilson (The Office), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Jorge Garcia (Lost), Nasim Pedrad (Scream Queens), etc. – makes up for what the script lacks. Ian Brennan and Lee Whannell co-script (and appear in) Cooties, and their writing experience – Brennan with Glee and Scream Queens, Whannell with the Saw and Insidious flicks – would seem to be a good mash-up for this sort of film. And at points, they are. Whannell’s Doug, a science teacher who lacks basic social graces and may be hearing voices, is a hoot. When Clint and Wade (Wilson) argue over the best way to proceed, Wade yells, “Oh, you’ll sneak around, huh? Sneak around like a little Hobbit. No way! I’m taking the fight to them like a fuckin’ orc!” The overall horror arc is also well done, as the outside world reacts to the pandemic while our heroes deal with it face to face. There are some good reasons my junior high-age offspring liked Cooties.

Unfortunately, for me, the grownup in the room, it fell a little flat. The dialogue has its moments, but generally feels forced, saved some by the talent of the actors saying the lines. And certain things don’t make sense. For example, during a number of escapes, Clint braves potential gnawing by running back to grab the first chapter of his novel as the hordes of junior high zombies close in on he and his new pals. But nothing comes from that, no grand resolution, not much in the way of tension, nothing. It’s noted prominently a few times, then evaporates. The ending also seems anti-climactic and a bit abrupt, leaving an opening for a sequel that I can’t imagine will actually happen.

The talent was available, and there was no lack of financial support holding Cooties back. A sharper script would have likely resulted in a movie beloved by many – think Gremlins – instead of a film forgotten by few.

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‘Zombeavers’ is what it is, but could have been more

zombeavers_still

When the zombeavers arrive, everyone is damned.

When you sit down to watch a movie about zombie beavers, you’re not exactly expecting Citizen Kane or The Imitation Game.

However, is it too much to ask for decent dialogue and something resembling pacing? Zombeavers clocks in at only 77 minutes, yet the first half hour drags mercilessly, a combination of stock horror characters delivering flat, uninspired dialogue and the occasional beaver pun. The potential for a nice mix of humor and menace – think the Chucky films or Gremlins – is there, but is never captured.

Thankfully, once the zombeaver attack starts, the movie is twice as fun. The beavers are the best part of the film. The stuffed puppets are one-part creepy, one-part hysterical. Occasionally, co-writer/director Jordan Rubin manages to capture the menace of these little beasts, and he also finds the humor when the furry pests come to the forefront.

If only it weren’t for the damn humans. No wonder those zombeavers were so pissed off. They knew the bi-peds were killing their moment to shine.

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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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Sometimes, good filmmaking ‘Follows’ a simple formula

It's coming for you, it won't stop and there's nowhere to run.

It’s coming for you, it won’t stop and there’s nowhere to run.

Back in the 1990s, when my wife and I were newlyweds and moving around a lot, we came up with this idea where a moving company would drop off a trailer at your home, you’d fill the trailer, and the company would come haul it to your new home and drop it off for you to unload. Imagine our surprise when, years later, we saw the first commercial for Pods. A simple idea, to be sure, but someone had figured out a manageable way to make our proposal work. It wasn’t the cure for cancer or putting a man on Mars, but it was elegant in its own way and the kind of thing many people would find useful.

That’s what I thought about as I watched It Follows. The premise of the film is pretty basic: A cursed person is followed by a shape-shifting monster visible only to themselves, and the only way to get rid of the curse is to pass it on, via sexual intercourse, to another person. A supernatural STD if you will.

I wonder how no one thought of this before. Much of horror, or at least American horror, is based around the idea that indulgence in vices leads to horrible repercussions, a sort of negative karma effect that comes down largely on teens. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell didn’t develop some mind-blowing premise on which to base his movie, such as we’ve seen in films like Cube, Pan’s Labyrinth or A Cabin in the Woods. He really just shaved all of the extras off of pretty much every horror flick you’ve ever seen and got down to the nut of it: Sex kills.

To his credit, that’s not all he did. His assembled cast is terrific. Maika Monroe plays Jay, the poor girl who has sex with her new boyfriend only to find out that she’s now being hunted by a monster with murderous intent. Her sister and friends – played by Lilli Sepe, Oliva Luccardi and Keir Gilchrist – are a tight, quirky unit who rally behind Jay while initially not being so sure that she is of sound mind. And the actors chosen to represent the “It” are all creepy and disconcerting in their own ways.

But for me, what really seals the deal is the score. Not since the original Halloween have I watched a movie where the music was so directly and surely woven into the story. It starts very quietly, slowly becoming more unsettling as it builds. The fact that Mitchell chooses to minimize the sounds and general aural distractions throughout It Follows results in the music having that much more of an impact when it does kick in. Brilliantly done all around.

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The only thing we have to fear is another ‘Walking Dead’ spin-off

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

AMC, you’ve gone too far.

Better Call Saul was a great choice for a spinoff. You had a couple of interesting, vital, skeevy, secretive side characters, Saul and Mike, who were part Walter White’s story but weren’t really the focus of Breaking Bad, nor they should they have been. But there was so much going on with those two in Breaking Bad that exploring what got them to the point that they working with Heisenberg was a rich vein to mine, if done correctly. The first season proved Saul has something going on, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

But AMC couldn’t stop there. No, we were force-fed Fear the Walking Dead. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty that could have been explored in the Dead-verse. For example, why not focus on the government response to the calamity. What was going on in statehouses? How did the president and his (or her) advisers react to the crisis? We were given a glimpse of the CDC reaction in Walking Dead, but why not follow the research component of response to this pandemic? Why not leave the United States and give us a cast in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, India, the Philipines? Heck, how about the struggle of the folks up in the International Space Station as they try to figure out what has happened on the ground and how they’re going to get back? The possibilities are virtually endless, restrained only by the imagination of the creative team. Everything I wrote here I thought up as I was writing it. Surely, given time and resources, the Fear the Walking Dead folks could have developed something beyond my abilities.

Instead of a million interesting, unique scenarios, however, we were given a West-Coast version of the East-Coast show we were already watching. It feels like we’re being fed under-heated, leftover lasagna that was overcooked in the first place. We watched as different people made the same mistakes we’d already seen our plucky Walking Dead heroes make over and over again. But, hey, L.A.! That has to count for something, right?

It’s disappointing. It comes off as the sort of crass money grab one would expect from one of the major networks instead of something new and interesting from the cable network who has dropped some pretty interesting drama in our laps over the past five years or so. It’s not must-watch television, period. Heck, after the first season of Walking Dead, I could name most of the characters off of the top of my head. Notice how I haven’t mentioned any Fear the Walking Dead characters by name? That’s because not only do I not remember any names, I don’t consider it worth my time to hop over to IMDB and look them up.

So, sorry, AMC. I eagerly anticipate your small-screen version of the Preacher comic book series, and I’m sure I’ll get into some of your original programming down the road. But Fear the Walking Dead is about as interesting to me as AfterMASH or That 80’s Show. And so, much as I did with those shows and others like them, I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

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