Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scanners

Directed by David Cronenberg. 
1981. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Cast:
Stephen Lack
Jennifer O'Neill
Michael Ironside
Patrick McGoohan
Lawrence Dane
Robert Silverman
Louis Del Grande

There are two hundred something known scanners in the world. They have telepathic ability up to and including the ability to take control of the bodily functions of others. They can make people drive into buildings, turn a gun on themselves, change a person's heart rate, even make someone's head explode. That last thing is depicted in glorious fashion during the movie's most famous scene. Normally, a scanner can't stand to be in the same room with another without some bad things happening. However, Darryl Revok (Ironside), a very powerful scanner is organizing them into a cohesive unit so they can take over the world. Dr. Ruth (McGoohan) is part of a government organization out to stop them. They have one scanner left working for them, Cameron Vale (Lack). Dr. Ruth sends Vale to infiltrate Revok's organization and bring him down.

Scanners succeeds when the titular characters are allowed to do their thing. Witnessing their capabilities is a dread inducing experience. Like the normal humans in the movie, we understand that having these people become dominant members of society means being at the mercy of their every whim even that means one wants to kill you without ever laying a hand on you. This is why the head exploding scene is so effective. It gives us a very clear explanation of the power of a scanner. The stakes are instantly raised to very high levels. It helps that the visuals showing this are simply priceless. It's by far the best effect used in the movie.

When speaking of visuals, I have to mention that the movie leaves a lot to be desired. After the aforementioned head explosion, most of the "fx" consists of people contorting their faces and maybe their bodies into supposedly pained expressions as the camera studies them. While it sounds okay in theory, it's funny in execution. I was reminded of the movie Breakin' where we get lots of shots of extreme close-ups of some dancer's face as it twists into some strange visage. I crack while watching that. I don't quite go that far, here, but it's enough to take me out of the movie. Not until very late in the game do we get some more real deal scanner stuff. During this scene, the faces fit because the fx aid in what the scene is trying to accomplish.


With all of that said, the most striking visual of them all might be Jennifer O'Neill as Kim Obrist, a scanner who joins forces with our hero. However, the movie fails her as a character. She seems to lack any substantive purpose other than including a female in the proceedings. The problem is that she feels far too unexplored. We get why she wants to help Vale, but that's about all we get about her. Things happen later that suggest she could be far more entertaining and far more important to the outcome. Unfortunately, it's arranged so that she sits out the climactic scene. We're left with Cameron Vale. The issue there is that Stephen Lack just doesn't deliver a compelling performance, at all. We know he's on the right side of things, but he is so lacking in charisma, we don't necessarily feel the compulsion to root for him. It is also detrimental to his cause that the first big moment they have together, it's obvious they should have and could have acted before everyone else in the room was killed. Yes, they're the good guys, but they have a hard time endearing themselves to us. On the flipside of things, as Darryl Revok, Michael Ironside is solidly creepy, but disappears from the movie for long stretches at a time.

The movie also suffers from not quite knowing what it wants to be. Some movies manage to weave multiple genres together to create a thrilling narrative. This one does it backwards. It takes what could be a thrilling narrative and breaks it into separate genres. Scanners starts off like a horror flick. Like I said earlier, the very existence of such people is enough to rattle our cages. However, it shortly abandons the effort to get under our skin to mimic a spy thriller. Sadly, this isn't all that thrilling. It's actually rather generic excepting the use of scanning in a few instances where guns would otherwise be used. We even get into computer hacking that doesn't make a lick of sense. I get that this was made in 1981 and society was not as technologically advanced as it is now. Still, the way one particular is interacted with is explained in such a nonsensical manner that even then, someone involved should have realized this was too big a pile of bs to fly. Of course, this leads us to the finale. For that, we make a jarring switch back to horror. Then we get another inexplicable moment to finish things off. Nothing that happens to this point even remotely suggests that what takes place is a possibility. It goes far beyond what either the explicit or implied capabilities of a scanner are. After the computer deal, it was just another instance where I was taken completely out of the world of the filim and rolled my eyes. Ultimately, this sank the movie for me. I understand that Cronenberg is a master of horror and that this movie has a sizable cult following and spawned some sequels. I, myself, am a huge fan of Videodrome. On this outing, he made too many curious choices that didn't quite work for me. Scanners, themselves, are an interesting concept, to be sure. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the idea is far better than the execution of it.


MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Thursday Movie Picks: Haunted Buildings



Once again, I'm excited that we've reached Thursday. However, boys and girls, this is a bittersweet one for ol' Dell. This will be the last Halloween themed edition of Thursday Movie Picks hosted by Wanderer at Wandering Through the Shelves. If you've been around, you know that I've gone full bore with the horror genre all month. Therefore, I'm a bit sad to see it coming to an end. Since we must move on to more regular movies in a few days, why not go out with the sub-genre that might produce the most actually scary movies of them all: haunted house flicks?

I've been into horror ever since I saw The Exorcist air on network television as a wee lad some thirty-five years ago. So yeah, I have socks older than most bloggers. With that much experience with the genre, it should come as no surprise that movies never scare me. A number of them have manage to disturb me, but none make me think something is really about to get me. However, I'd be lying if I said that after a particularly good haunted house flick in the discomfort of my own dark home, I didn't give an extra thought to the sounds one normally hears in the dead of night. With that said, I'm going to just jump right in to a trio of hidden gems that made me have to remind myself that the creaking I just heard was merely the house settling.


The Amityville Horror
(2005)
I'm sure you'll notice that this is the remake and not the 1979 classic. Here's the deal: the original is arguably the most famous and revered haunted house flick of all time (possible exception to Poltergeist. The remake is most certainly not. In fact, it's fairly despised. I understand why. It takes the original story and stuffs it into thirty minutes less movie. However, it works for me. The original, while a better movie, has a tendency to drag. This one moves swiftly along and ups the visual ante by a wide margin. It's a quick, but fun ride that's not as bad as its reputation. It's also a chance to see Ryan Reynolds play something besides a smart-alec. (my full review)


The Orphanage
(2008)
Here, we have a movie that flew under most people's radar, but is loved by most who happened to see it. The Orphanage is a wonderful tale about a family that has moved into a drafty old mansion that used to house an orphanage, of course. Shortly after they get there, their own son goes missing. Meanwhile, mom is hearing and seeing all sorts of strange things. I mean, just look at the creepy picture above. Of the three movies I'm recommending this week, this is the most sure-fire winner.


Silent House
(2012)
Here's another movie that doesn't get the credit it deserves. Like the remake of The Amityville Horror, it's a quick shot of creepiness, clocking in at a mere 86 minutes. The selling points here are the wonderful performance by Elizabeth Olsen and the rather unsettling noise made by an old-school camera. Her character has returned to her family's old summer house with her dad and uncle. Before long, she's hearing and seeing things everywhere. It all leads up to one of the most delicious twists ever. (my full review)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oculus

Directed by Mike Flanagan.
2014. Rated R 103 minutes.
Cast:
Karen Gillan
Brenton Thwaites
Rory Cochrane
Katee Sackoff
Annalise Basso
Garrett Ryan
James Lafferty
Miguel Sandoval
Kate Siegel

We meet Tim (Thwaites) as he is turning 18 and about to be released from a mental institution after six years. What put him there in the first place was that he shot and killed his father after his father had tortured and murdered his mother. Allegedly. His sister Kaylie (Gillan) doesn't remember it that way. She thinks the real culprit is the mirror that hung in her parents' bedroom. Yes, the mirror. According to her, it is pure evil, has been around for centuries, and has left a trail of dead bodies in its wake. She believes the mirror was not simply present for these deaths, but actively caused them through psychological manipulation. Years of therapy has helped Tim realize this just isn't the case. Undeterred, Kaylie returns to the house where it all went down with her brother in tow. She arms herself with a bunch of cameras, a small dog, some houseplants, instructions for her boyfriend to call and check on her every hour, on the hour, and a nasty looking anchor attached to a kill switch. With all of this in place, Kaylie sets out to prove her brother and the rest of the world wrong. While this is going on, we also get to see the events surrounding the death of their mother as they unfold.

After starting with a bang, literally, Oculus just kind of moseys along for a while as Tim and Kaylie take turns spewing reams of psychobabble that passes for exposition. Basically, Kaylie says "Mirror, bad! Mirror really bad! Look at dead people!" Tim responds with "is not," and they do it all over again after a flashback to what happened six years prior. As an audience, we're taken right to the brink of losing interest. Suddenly, a funny thing occurs. Both stories, the one in the past and the one in the present pick up and things start happening. Our interest is piqued and we find ourselves engaged in what's going on with these people. It helps that the tension is considerably ratcheted up as Kaylie continues to tempt fate on end of the spectrum and the situation between her parents begins rapidly deteriorating.


The story of the parents, has a classic haunted house...er...haunted mirror feel. In fact, it seems to take a lot of its cues from The Amityville Horror. Then again, what ghost story doesn't? Of course, there is a twist thrown in which I won't reveal. The present story is the more original of the two. Sure, there's the mirror, but there is also sibling rivalry taken to absurdist extremes. There are also questions of mental health as well as wondering aloud where we can and cannot assign blame. On the surface, this manifests itself in some nice moments where our heroes, and us by extension, have to guess whether or not what they are seeing is really there.

Overall, Oculus is a solid movie, one that starts slowly and manages to increase the tension as it goes. In this regard, it's a nicely done horror flick that relies much more on psychology than on buckets of blood. This is a nice change of pace for American horror, so long emphasizing body count over the intrinsically disturbing. On the other hand, it's just a mirror. Not only that, but for all the research Kaylie put into this thing she couldn't come up with one possible source of its power or one other person to corroborate her theory. Thankfully, this plays into the mystery of whether or not she and/or Tim are insane. However, it also makes it tough to get worked up over a malevolent mirror, no matter how many tragedies are attributed to it. It's also problematic that we can sniff out the ending in advance. The clues are too massive for us to ignore. I won't give it away, here, but our destination becomes apparent too soon. Therefore, while we enjoy what we see, we can't but feel like it should have been better.


MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cosmic Horror Cast-a-Thon


My good blogging buddy John over at Hitchcock's World has given his fellow bloggers an important task. We must save the world. To do so, we have to assemble an investigative team stop the Old Ones, or one of them, at least. If you're like me, your first question was 'who are the Old Ones?' In that case, you need to brush up on your H.P. Lovecraft. In lieu of, you know, finding out about them on your own, check out this post on John's site to get the low down on our pending destruction. Hopefully, this will spur you on to create your own team and take down one of these rather unforgiving deities.

There are some rules for putting together a team. As per Mr. Hitchcock, they are as follows:

  1. Choose an Old One you wish to prevent from destroying out world. For those of you not familiar with Lovecraft, I'll provide a list below with some information on each and what little information is known about them.
  2. Select a group of horror movie characters you believe are cut out for the task of fighting the Old Ones. They don't have to actually be from a cosmic horror story, but they should have experience dealing with "horror" in some sense of the word. Because of the unpredictable nature of what we are dealing with, there is no limit on how many characters you can have in your party.
  3. With each character you choose, provide a few words explaining why you chose that character and what you think they can contribute to the investigation.
  4. There are no limits on how many players can go against a specific Old One, but if even one is not pursued by a single player, than you can say goodbye to everything you hold dear.

I will say that for my team, we may be stretching the definition of a horror flick. Sorry, John. Rules were made to be broken. Besides, we're talking about saving our collective asses, here. Now that that's out of the way, let's get don to business.

The Old One We're After:

Shub-Niggurath
In John's words:
Ia Shub-Niggurath, the legendary "Black Ram of the Woods" or "Goat with a Thousand Young". Not much is known about her beyond rumors, although there are stories of strange creatures that are said to worship her. Ordinarily she is not someone you want to have anything to do with, nor are any of her thousand young.

Hmmm...our work is cut out for us.

The Team

Executive Officer
Col. Colin Caine
Lifeforce
(1985)
Dealing with the unusual and extremely dangerous is what this guy does. This includes going into the corona of Halley's Comet and finding an alien ship that just happens to contain extraterrestrial vampires. His ability to deal with that makes me confident he can deal with this.


Commanding Officer
Captain Miller
Event Horizon
(1997)
Captain Miller is definitely a guy who has experience trying to hold his team together in extremely adverse situations. As captain of the Lewis and Clark, he led a rescue mission to recover the Event Horizon. This involves a trip to another dimension, visions of his crew being mutilated and tortured, and sacrificing himself for the good of the mission. My kind of guy.


Chief Investigator
Gerry Lane
World War Z
(2013)
I would hope that the UN would want to be involved in a mission to save all of humanity. Since I say they will, we're sending in an investigator they might always readily admit works for them. And since this is the guy they called to deal with a global zombie outbreak, I'm willing to give him a shot at tracking down Shub-Niggurath.


Archaeologist
Elizabeth Shaw
Prometheus
(2012)
Shaw is devoutly religious and in search of the beginnings of humanity. However, I think we can pull her away to help save it. After all, there are rumors of underground shrines to Shub-Niggurath and she also has experience dealing with entities that might have lots of offspring and wants to kill us. Speaking of off-spring, she had to give herself a c-section when an alien planted a fetus inside of her. Yeah, she's a survivor.


Parapsychologist
Egon Spengler
Ghostbusters
(1984)
I think a guy specializing in paranormal extermination could certainly be of use. After all, he's saved New York City, and thus, the world, twice from entities beyond the wildest imaginations of most humans. He ain't afraid of no Old One.


Biologist
Corazon
Sunshine
(2007)
Just in case our team somehow gets close enough, but doesn't finish the job the first time, Corazon would be able to help us figure out what we're dealing...if it's something biological at all, that is. It also helps that she's used to doomed missions having been sent to re-ignite the sun. Yeah, she's in.


Pilot/Archivist
Rosa Dasque
Europa Report
(2013)
Someone has to get us there. Why not someone who has shown she can not only fly the vessel, but work on communications, if the need arises, and is willing to go down with the ship? Rosa is willing to do just that for the greater good.


Infantry

Dutch Schaefer
Predator
(1987)
Who better to deal with this type of threat than Dutch? Let everyone else handle the brainy stuff, this dude's got muscles upon muscles, knows how to handle a guns, and deal with entities that most certainly aren't human.


Alice
Resident Evil
(2002)
Sure, she doesn't have Dutch's brawn, and doesn't have the greatest memory, but she can definitely take out hordes of zombies. That might not take down Shub herself, but it will surely help with her thousand young. We need that kind of help.


Good luck, team.



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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Argento's Dracula

Directed by Dario Argento.
2012. Not Rated, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Thomas Kretschmann
Miriam Giovanelli
Rutger Hauer
Asia Argento
Marta Gastini
Unax Ugalde
Giovanni Franzoni

Even when you think you know what you're getting yourself into, it still might be hard to believe when you're actually there. Argento's Dracula is one such place. I mean, the cover of the DVD drips with ooey-gooey cheese. It's animated and shows a guy I presume to be the titular Dracula in the upper left hand corner. Next to him is a larger picture of a female vampire with a lower-than-low cut top. The words beneath her are from some critic proclaiming this to be a throwback to the vampire flicks made by Hammer Films, complete with "heaving bosoms." I paraphrased most of it, but put quotation marks around the phrase "heaving bosoms" because I definitely remember seeing "heaving bosoms." Perhaps it's sad that I couldn't directly quote all of it, but clearly remember "heaving bosoms." In fact, I'm pretty certain I can remember every bosom I've ever seen heave. By this point, I'm just appeasing my own juvenile sense of humor by harping on this. Can you blame me? How often does a guy reviewing allegedly legitimate movies get to talk about heaving bosoms? Too often, apparently, so I'll stop.

And I should. Because the fact of the matter is...sigh. Let's stop for a moment. Occasionally, I have to chastise myself. I started a sentence with 'and,' then followed that by starting the next one with 'because.' Every professor who had a hand in getting me through to an English degree is collectively groaning as you read this. Or, not. They probably have no knowledge of this blog, let alone pay attention to it. Whatever. You're here about a movie, right?

To pick up where I left off, there was something else on the cover letting me know I was in for a cheesetastic experience. In fact, this was the thing that really inspired me to check out Argento's Dracula. This thing is actually a man. He's not just any man, but one who has come to symbolize B-movie madness. Of course, I'm talking about the one and only hobo with a shotgun, Rutger Hauer. Perfect. Play.


The movie is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic tale. By loose, I mean very loose. It uses the same main characters, presumaby, the same time period, and the same basic idea. Jonathan Harker (Ugalde) is hired by the mysterious Count Dracula (Kretschmann) and travels to stay at the Count's castle. What exactly he's hired for is never made clear, unless I just missed it. That's entirely possible since I was distracted by the rather early appearance of a heaving bosom. To be honest, this bosom doesn't actually heave. It's completely free of any of the constraints that might make heaving possible. Sorry. It's to the point where I can't help myself. Shortly, Tania (Giovanelli), owner of said bosom, is taking the walk of shame through the woods after a tryst with a dude in a barn when a gigantic owl swoops down on her and reveals itself to be Dracula. Yup, an owl. Chomp, chomp, suck, suck, lady vampire. Her job for the rest of the movie is to try to seduce Harker every time she sees him only to be thwarted by the Count himself who has other plans for the dude he hired for reasons undisclosed. Other folks run around trying to figure out what to do about the Count and after about an hour, Rutger Hauer shows up as Van Helsing and takes matters into his own hands.

Most of what's going on here can't possibly pass for good film making. However, the only part of this that's problematic is the clunky pacing, particularly during the first half of the movie. There are a few stretches where you might find yourself bored. Everything else that's happening is terrible on a hilarious level. This even includes the one "good" thing going for it, aside from heaving bosoms, that is. I'm talking about the acting. These performers are all in, going for broke. Most of them are over the top in a manner reminiscent of classically trained Shakespearean thespians doing MacBeth in the park like their next meal depends on it. This gives the whole production a little extra pop, adds to the zaniness of it all. And yeah, dammit - did that again, Rutger Hauer goes Rutger Hauer and Dracula has all the classic vampire strengths and weaknesses plus a few more. Owl and stuff. By stuff, I mean giant praying mantis. Boys and girls, we're dealing with a movie so bad it's bosom heavingly awesome.


MY SCORE: -10/10


More horror that's so bad it's awesome...


Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Haunted House

Directed by Michael Tiddes.
2013. Rated R, 86 minutes.
Cast:
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.
Cast:
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