Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Haunted House

Directed by Michael Tiddes.
2013. Rated R, 86 minutes.
Marlon Wayans
Essence Atkins
Nick Swardson
Andrew Daly
Alanna Ubach
Cedric the Entertainer
Marlene Forte
David Koechner
Dave Sheridan
Affion Crockett
J.B. Smoove

Today is a big day. This is when Malcolm's (Wayans) girlfriend Kisha (Atkins) is moving in with him. He has a spacious house with a pool and a jacuzzi and a housekeeper named Rosa (Forte) to help him maintain it all. Of course, the second Kisha gets there, strange things start happening. It soon becomes apparent that there is a ghost in the house. And since this is a found footage movie, every oddity is caught on camera. Just so you don't go thinking this has any chance of being scary I'll let you know that this is a parody of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Therefore, comedy, or something like it, ensues.

The setup is familiar. Things happen, with the most extreme stuff occurring during the wee hours of the night. In the mornings, our loving couple watches the footage to see what went on for themselves. The difference between this and the movies it pokes fun of, plot wise, is that this is really all about sex. Nearly every joke overtly references some form of the act or another. This includes a rather extended scene of a threesome involving Malcolm and a pair of teddy bears. You might laugh yourself silly, become too uncomfortable to laugh, or both. Like much of the movie, it goes out of its way to be crass. A Haunted House also leans toward stereotypes and male homophobia (being completely okay with female homosexuality, naturally). Take it, or leave it.

Now that you know what to expect out of this movie, I can probably stop writing. However, I do want to touch on some of the highlights. For me, the biggest is Marlene Forte as Rosa. She is the one who made me laugh most consistently. She also takes what could be just a sliver of a character and forms a fully realized being. To be perfectly honest, it probably helps that we only get her in small doses. I'm judging by the plethora of supporting players who come to the house at some point. Most are at least a little funny for the first few minutes after they show up, but manage to wear out their welcome. Another positive is that whether you love it or hate it, it's not boring. The run time is thankfully short. On top of that it moves quickly because things are constantly happening that grab our attention.

While I wouldn't call A Haunted House good, I will say it wasn't nearly as painful as it could have been. It's better than another Wayans Brothers horror spoof, the Scary Movie franchise. Unlike those, it doesn't just re-enact random scenes from a bunch of movies appearing schizophrenic and pulling us in way too many directions. A Haunted House uses the template provided by Paranormal Activity, even to the point of imitation, but creates its own self-contained and cohesive narrative. You need not have seen twenty other films to get most of the jokes. Really, you don't even have to have seen Paranormal Activity. It stands up, or falls down depending on your tolerance for humor that might be beyond raunchy, on its own accord.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Lords of Salem

Directed by Rob Zombie.
2013. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Bruce Davison
Jeff Daniel Phillips
Ken Foree
Patricia Quinn
Dee Wallace
Maria Conchita Alonso
Judy Geeson
Meg Foster

Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) is the co-host of a late night radio show in Salem, Mass. Not surprisingly, they are currently discussing the legendary Salem Witch Trials. Of course, she will soon encounter some practitioners of the black arts. While leaving work, she is given a record, yes a record, that has mysteriously appeared at the front desk with her name on it. Listening to it makes her feel like crap and induces some disturbing visions. There is also the strange new neighbor who isn't supposed to be there. Watching Heidi freak out ensues.

The Lords of Salem is one of those movies that plays on a loop. Generally, Heidi wakes up and stumbles around her apartment with her dog nearby. Something weird happens then she's off to work. We then see a little of the radio show after which she goes home and gets drunk with someone. Somewhere in here the music plays and something else weird happens. Rinse. Repeat. Throughout this cycle her mental health seems to be deteriorating. Unfortunately, after the first time or two through the cycle it feels repetitive.

Things aren't helped much by some predictable characters showing up. Withing seconds of meeting certain people we have a fairly accurate idea of who/what they really are. They all just look and act too shady to be anything else. The mystery is sapped out of the film rather early because of this. The only real intrigue left is the visuals presented whenever our heroine starts seeing things.

There are some strong resemblances between The Lords of Salem and 2012's Lovely Molly. In both, the protagonist is a woman who is a recovering drug addict and begins seeing things she can't explain. The difference is in that movie, Molly's addiction is taken seriously by the film itself. Here, Heidi's is treated somewhat cavalierly. Much of LM is built around other characters believing her to be slipping back into her old ways as we watch her fight not to during an extremely stressful time in her life. We sympathize with her and wonder if it's all in her head. In The Lords of Salem Heidi's history with drugs is also a known factor by her friends. Their concern appears token, at best. By that I mean, they regularly start up her all-night drinking sessions. It's as if no one, including the writer/director/star's husband Rob Zombie included, has the slightest clue that there is any problem whatsoever with a drug addict binge drinking. It subtracts from the idea that anyone gives a crap about her. If the movie itself doesn't, why should we? This is a crucial question that is never answered. As a result, we have nothing to grasp except a few disturbing pictures.

Disturbing. That's the key word. Rob Zombie strives to make all of his movies match that description. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes not. This is one of the nots. He tries to do it by attempting to make us recoil from what we see rather than reaching into and shaking our core. Sure, there are some ugly images here that may make some of us cringe. But once that fleeting moment passes there is nothing to truly heighten our sense of dread. The ending is his last ditch effort at freaking us out. Truthfully, it's a great singular shot that does appeal to our soul more than our eyes. Had the movie leading up to it been better, it would be a downright brilliant finale. As it stands, it's the best part of a bad movie.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thursday Movie Picks: Vampire Movies

The theme for this week's Thursday Movie Picks, hosted by the amazing Wanderer at Wandering Through the Shelves, is one that is near and dear to my heart: vampire movies. Vampires are my favorite of all movie monsters. Well, they were, until the Stephanie Meyer led wussification of them. So yeah, I still fully believe that Edward Cullen must die.

Thankfully, there are some vampire movies of recent vintage that I'm proud to call blood sucker flicks. However, they aren't as widely known as the tripe that rakes in all the box office dough so I'm definitely calling these hidden gems. In fact, all three of my picks made my list of the best vampire movies since 2000. Chronologically, they are...

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
A wealthy man whose daughter has been abducted by vampires hires D, the best hunter in the business to bring her back safely. What transpires is a wild, violent, and strange ride into a world overrun by vampires. D himself is half-vampire. To oversimplify, think of this as an anime version of Blade. Since that's selling it way short, just see the damn movie. Without the kids.

30 Days of Night
In a small Alaskan industrial town, the sun is about to set and won't come back up for 30 days. When that happens, a group of vampires shows up with sharp teeth and large appetites. And that's pretty much it. This is one of the most savage and visceral portrayals of vampires ever committed to film. There are no romantic notions, no thoughtful metaphors, just hunting for food. These vampires...and the food they eat...are about as raw as it gets.

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook delivers this ridiculously under-seen vampire flick. It centers on a priest who, through a blood transfusion needed to save him from a deadly disease, becomes a vampire. If wrestling with that weren't enough for the man's conscience, he finds himself falling in love with a married woman. He turns her. Then the real fun begins. (full review)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Directed by Christopher B. Landon.
2014. Rated R, 84 minutes.
Andrew Jacobs
Jorge Diaz
Gabrielle Walsh
Renee Victor
Noemi Gonzalez
David Saucedo
Gloria Sandoval
Katie Featherston
Micah Sloat
Molly Ephraim

For this installment in the Paranormal Activity series, we switch from a sprawling quiet suburb to a cramped inner-city apartment building. Instead of focusing on Katie (Featherston) and/or members of her family, we follow around Jesse (Jacobs) and Hector (Diaz), a couple of guys who just graduated from high school, but don't really seem to have much direction. Their days consist of a little skateboarding, smoking a little pot, trying to get into some girl's pants, videotaping everything, and avoiding the occasional horde of thugs who happen to notice that they're suddenly on camera. After hearing some strange, erotic sounding noises coming through the vent from the apartment below, guess where they drop their camera. What they see enhances, but doesn't quite confirm their belief that the lady who lives in said apartment is a witch. To cut to the chase, strange things start happening in Jesse's apartment, and to him personally.

Once again, we follow the Paranormal Activity template. Someone lugs a camera around while odd things happen and someone is possessed. Aided by the home footage look that permeates the series, the acting is pretty natural. It is a major plus to be able to say anything good about the acting in the fifth movie in a horror franchise. And it's true. Watching these two guys just be boys is easily the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, nothing else holds much water. The jump scares don't make us jump and certainly don't scare us. The plot meanders way too much for its own good. The whole thing makes less sense any other film in the series, and ends with a lame tie-in to those movies. Part of that is simply due to location. It simply doesn't work.

The change in scenery creates a big problem for this film that its predecessors didn't have. Part of what makes a haunted house flick successful is the isolation felt by the inhabitants. It's easy for neighbors to not believe you have ghosts because they may never hear or see anything. This fosters a sense of hopelessness in both the people living in the house and the viewers. The only people that might help are ones you call when times are desperate, members of the clergy or oddballs that fancy themselves to be ghost-busters. More important to the atmosphere of the movie, there really is nothing else going on. By changing to a crowded urban landscape the plot is instantly convoluted. There are too many people that could, and should, know something. There are also too many people who don't give a crap what's going on. There are just naturally too many agendas to present for this type of story. This leads us in the audience to more willingly question the events in the movie. Our ability to suspend disbelief is more seriously tested. When things are focused on the happenings inside a single family house where the neighbors aren't too close, it's easier for us to be absorbed by the movie and experience it. With The Marked Ones, we just watch it. Magic already fading due to the redundant nature of being a franchise with an installment every year, is now completely gone.

MY SCORE: 3.5/10

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cockneys vs. Zombies

Directed by Matthias Hoene.
2012. Rated R, 87 minutes.
Harry Treadaway
Rasmus Hardiker
Michelle Ryan
Alan Ford
Georgia King
Ashley Thomas
Jack Doolan
Tony Gardner
Tony Selby
Georgina Hale
Honor Blackman

Two dim-witted blokes working on a construction site think it's their lucky day when they discover a hidden underground room. They journey down the dark stairway hoping to find a buried treasure only to become zombie food. Switching over to more stupid people, we meet brothers Terry (Hardiker) and Andy (Treadaway) as they're assembling a crew to help them pull off a bank robbery. They also make a stop to visit their grandfather Ray (Ford), a World War II vet now living in a rest home. Of course, the heist doesn't go according to plan. As they're trying to escape the bank they see that just about everyone in town has been zombified. Our heroes, plus a few others, trying to rescue Grandpa and his friends at the rest home, and just trying to stay alive ensues.

From time to time, we get some good laughs, and some cringe inducing gore from Cockneys vs. Zombies. It's a lively affair that stars a tad slow, but picks up considerably once we get to the bank robbery. Much of the humor comes from the stupidity of our co-leads. Together, Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadaway make a funny enough pair. The psychotic behavior of Ashley Thomas as Mental Mickey, the "back in my day I woulda..." quality of Alan Ford's performance as Ray, and Michelle Ryan and Katy pointing out the idiocy of everyone involved all elicit their fair share of laughs.

Even as we're getting those laughs, we're not as thrilled with it as we should be. What holds the movie back more than anything is its completely derivative nature. It's most obvious influence is, of course, Shaun of the Dead. Not only does the plot go in many of the same directions, but Terry and Andy come across as a knock off version Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Like I said, they aren't terrible, just not nearly as good as the originals. CvZ also draws heavily from the crime comedies of Guy Ritchie. A number of exchanges between characters and even the characters themselves feel like they were picked up off the cutting room floor of Snatch, or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Again, the way it happens here is okay, but pales in comparison to its own inspirations. That makes this a movie that's okay, but probably works better if you haven't seen the films it draws from.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Monday, October 20, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: A Nightmare on Elm Street

By November of 1984, I was only thirteen years old, but already starting to develop my lust for slasher flicks. I had already seen Halloween, Prom Night, Sleepaway Camp, and the first three Friday the 13th movies. There are probably a few more that I'm forgetting, but you get the picture. Naturally, when I saw the commercial for Wes Craven's latest, A Nightmare on Elm Street, I had to see it as soon as possible. My bestest buddy in the whole wide world also wanted to see it. Here's where Mom came in. I was only thirteen. How else was I going to get there? Sure, my friends' had parents that might be willing to take us to the theater, but they weren't all as liberal as my mom when it came to what types of movies us kids watched. all, she was fully aware I was watching stuff like Porky's, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin, and Zapped!, along with the aforementioned fright movies.

Don't judge her.

In this case, I can't recall the amount of begging that actually took place. I do know that Mom isn't much of a horror movie fan. She's not utterly opposed to them, at least back then she wasn't, but she'd rather watch something else most of the time. Still, I, or we, did enough whining to get her to bite the bullet, load up the car, and take a bunch of us to meet Freddy Krueger. By a bunch of us, I mean myself, three siblings, my bestest buddy, and his little brother. My three siblings, by the way, all younger than I. In fact, I was the second oldest of all since my friend was six months my senior. My youngest brother brought up the rear at a whopping four years of age.

Don't you dare judge her.

What we saw was simply, and still, one of the best slasher flicks ever made. Just in case you're somehow unfamiliar with the story, I'll give you a quick rundown. Years ago, Freddy was the janitor at a local school and murdered a bunch of kids. He was arrested, but got off on a technicality. Not willing to take that lying down, the neighborhood parents got together and burned him alive. Now, it seems Freddy is haunting their children from beyond the grave through their dreams. The kicker is that if he kills anyone in their dream, they die in real life. And yeah, he kills up some Elm Street kids in their dreams. One of them actually went to have a fairly successful career. It was the kid who got sucked into his own bed during a dream only to have all of his blood and guts come shooting out of it like a geyser. He was played by some guy making his big screen debut by the name of Johnny Depp. You might have heard of him.

Didn't I tell you not to judge her?

That scene featuring Depp is just one of a number of surreal sequences. Another featured a girl who seemed to be flying about the room as her body was being repeatedly gashed. Still another, showed the heroine being dragged into her own bath water which turns out to be a bottomless pool, waking up just before she meets her end. Often it wasn't immediately clear that the person being shown had fallen asleep. This added to the mystery of things. The entire movie significantly raised the bar on what could be done with dream sequences. Of course, spoiler alert, the good guys figure out a way to stop Freddy. They think they kill him, but that's not really the case as we're set up quite nicely for a sequel. The credits roll. We go home. Then the fun starts.

That four year old brother of mine had watched this entire movie unfold without flinching. At least, I didn't see him flinch. He certainly never crawled into Mom's lap, bury his face in her bosom, or even call her name. He hung in there like a champ. I was proud of the boy. Then, he showed his true colors. Whatever colors a four year old has, of course.

When we got home, he had to use the restroom. He ran to the upstairs bathroom, went in and dropped his pants. I happened to be coming up the stairs right behind him and noticed he left the door open. Being a good big brother, I closed it without even thinking about it. Suddenly, my brother screamed as loud as humanly possible, ran to the door, and yanked it open. My first reaction was to ask what in the world was he doing, since his pants were still down around his ankles. All he could do was point toward the bathtub. I laughed and tried to close the door again, but he was having none of that. So yeah, my brother used the bathroom with the door wide open. I don't know about your house, but that was most certainly not a normal occurrence at mine.

The fun wasn't quite over for my brother. During those days, he and I slept in the attic which had been transformed into a bedroom. We each had a side and were separated only by the staircase leading up to it. Once he made it up there, it was well past his bedtime, so he got his pajamas on and...

didn't get into bed.

Instead, he just stares at the thing. I remind him that it's time for him to hit the sack. Since he was obviously having a flashback to the demise of Johnny Depp, he started feeling all over the mattress, checking for holes to be sucked into. It took quite a while for him to be satisfied that Freddy Krueger was not going to grab him from somewhere beneath the bed and spray his insides all over the ceiling. When he reached that point, he manage to lie down and actually sleep through the night.

You still can't judge her.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Ape Man

Directed by William Beaudine.
1943. Not Rated, 64 minutes.
Bela Lugosi
Louise Currie
Wallace Ford
Henry Hall
Minerva Urecal
Ralph Littlefield
Emil Van Horn

Sometimes, people are too smart for their own good. And by people, I mean mad scientists in movies. James Brewster (Lugosi) is one of those. I'm not sure what he was actually trying to accomplish, but he's managed to transform himself into an ape in the old school Roddy McDowall sense of the word. He's totally in control of his thoughts and actions. However, he walks kinda-sorta like an ape, has hairy knuckles, and can't stand up straight. On the plus side, he's almost as strong as a gorilla and has grown a thick head of hair with an awesome beard to match. In my world, he has two clear choices for what he should do next. He can either get himself a costume and fight crime, or get a costume and try to take over the city. Either way, dude should be dressing up and making a name for himself. But alas, Dr. Brewster doesn't live in my world. He lives in the...ahem...real world of 1940s sci-fi/horror. So, no costume. Dammit.

When we meet him, he's inexplicably in a cage in his house laboratory with a "real" ape. And by "real," I mean a dude in a gorilla suit. This is also the first time his sister Agatha (Urecal) has seen him since his accident. For good measure, there's a reporter (Ford) and his lady photographer (Currie) snooping around because, apparently, Dr. Stewart is famous and has been reported missing. Yes, it's important that the photographer is a lady because this movie was made in 1943 (hate to keep harping on the era). She's just been hired by the newspaper (remember those?) and the reporter keeps questioning her abilities because, well, girl. Don't worry. She has a witty comeback for every one of his snide remarks. Later on, get this, she even defends herself. This is downright progressive stuff for its time.

I'm off track. Let's get back to our doctor friend. Instead of going in either of the directions I suggested, he's hell bent on curing himself. Other than being slumped over, I'm not sure the cons outweigh the pros of his new condition. Hell, I even forgot to add that he can communicate with apes now, in their language. I'm just not seeing the big problem, here. Actually, I do see the problem. Given the time during which this movie was made I get that it's tinged with anti-Nazi sentiment. After all, they were touting themselves as the superior race and killed a lot of people to push their own agenda.

Ahhh, the killing. Now, we finally get to the meat of the story. To cure himself, Dr. Brewster announces that he needs human spinal fluid. How he reached that conclusion or how it works, or how anything he did to this point worked is never even hinted at, so don't ask. Of course, the only way to get spinal fluid is to extract it from real live people, killing them instantly. Guess what the doc does with the aid of his trusty gorilla pal? If you guessed go on a killing spree, give yourself a pat on the back with your newly elongated simian arms. The gorilla actually does the killing, after which J-Brew jabs a needle in their back and drains them. As you might imagine, this practice is frowned upon.

The way the film plays out it's abundantly clear that we're not watching a classic monster flick. Dr. Brewster starting the movie in a cage is just one of many nonsensical things that happen. The most ridiculous is the random old dude who shows up everywhere in town and directly alters the plot. He pops up out of nowhere to tell people what to do and then disappears again. Eventually, he breaks the fourth wall and explains who he is. I'll just save that little surprise on the off chance you might actually watch this. Sadly, or maybe not, he gives the most interesting performance after Lugosi. The horror icon was clearly past his prime of a decade earlier, but still seems to be giving it his all. Unfortunately for him, but not me, the movie around him is a steaming pile. Mind you, it's often an inadvertently hilarious steaming pile, but still a steaming pile. That makes The Ape Man so bad, it's awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Other horror movies so bad they're awesome: