Wednesday, April 27, 2011

14-Oh-Wait...



In 1408 (2007) John Cusack is sad. Not because he's a writer (which is what I thought) but because his daughter died a few years ago. Yes, one of those eerily perfect children vanquished by some anonymous disease. He seems upset because of her death, I feel like we've avoided another Children of the Damned situation. A once prolific-ish novelist, he now spends his days writing Scariest Places in America type books. Which is supposed to tell us he's a hack and has become disenchanted with writing. I personally kind of dig those books, but that's probably because I'm not a prolific-ish novelist and therefore too good for most things.

Cusack then receives a mysterious envelope telling him not to go to room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York. So he goes to room 1408 in the Dolphin. After Hotel Manager Samuel L. Jackson (I know he has a character name, but isn't he always really Samuel L Jackson?) tells him of the gruesome history of the room and tries every tactic in the book to get Cusack not to go in 1408, he still goes in. And this is where the movie loses me.

If we've established for the first part of the movie that he is not really into this whole writing about scary places thing then why actively pursue going to yet another one? Yes, there are potential motivations but the script is sooooo wishy-washy about the whole thing. Cusack just seems obsessive.

There are few things worse than sitting through an amazing, creepy beginning of a film only to have it descend into sheer absurdity. Interestingly, the bit of dread that is created in the film dissipates when Cusack enters the dreaded 1408. There are a few unsettling bits but the room get too full-blown too quickly. The crazier the room gets the more the plot tugs on our heart strings.

I guess that's my problem with Stephen King stories. They're too mushy. The dead kid, the ex-wife he still has feelings for... it all feels a bit much. Just scare me. Don't give me a Lifetime movie. I know the room is supposed to represent some kind of inner struggle with his own unresolved issues, but at least try to imbue the sequences with a little bit of subtlety.

For myself, horror/thriller movies work within constraints. (i.e. Freddy won't get you unless you're asleep) Not sheer, bat-shit crazy. That gets boring. When the room can do anything, it no longer feels familiar. It feels like a Michael Bay movie.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reboots VS Remakes

Much has been made of Scream 4's opening weekend. The results were weak and opinions were decidedly split on the movie's merits leading some film writers to decree that horror is dead. The two people I saw Scream 4 with decidedly did not enjoy it, while I thought it was fun. It actually made me curious to see where the franchise could go. But with it's inaugural box office returns it appears Scream 4 will remain an anomaly.

E! Online recently responded to Scream 4 box office take saying that reboots were obviously not as bankable as remakes. Now, the argument can be made for both forms of film. Aliens vs The Fly. Dawn of the Dead vs Evil Dead 2. Halloween (2007) vs Halloween 2 (2009). Which would you rather?

There is of course room for both but Hollywood loves broad sweeping statements that help finance movies. Proclaim the sequel dead, long live the remake. Personally I'd rather have my fingernails removed with rusty tweezers than to have ever seen last year's Nightmare on Elm Street remake or the paint-by-numbers Friday the 13th or Rob Zombie's circle-jerk of the Halloween series.

Platinum Dunes has made some people very rich by re-branding the already successful iconic horror films and marketing them to fans old and new. While I've hated many recent remakes I'm still inclined to see them. They are interesting if you looks at them as a sign of the times. As the filmmakers are given less control and producers are seeing an increased profit margin from their beloved remakes we will be watching this gravy train unfold for like a perverse, boring, almost unwatchable Möbius strip.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Everyone Kinda Likes Mandy Lane



It's a funny thing being the underdog. One second your audience is rooting for you, the next they're talking shit about you. Much like the fabled Mandy Lane herself, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) has been hailed as a slasher classic for the modern era held back by its lingering residence in Distribution Hell.

Released overseas, the film has never been seen in North American and is being held hostage by the Weinstein Company. Well, I got my hands on it. After seeing Drive Angry and loving Amber Heard in that I wanted to see her first lead role as the infamous Mandy Lane. And the result is a confusing disaster. Director Jonathon Levine and screenwriter Jacob Forman try to subvert, destroy and ultimately recreate the slasher genre. The results yield a humourless Heathers rip-off. I've never seen a group characters have less fun in a movie.

In a glossed over prologue, Junior high school student Mandy Lane returns after summer vacation a total hottie. All the boys want to do her and all the girls want to be her friend or give her an eating disorder. The resident jock asshole dies in a very confusing sequence and we flash forward to nine months later. Mandy's still a hottie and a virgin. She joins a group of the popular kids on a weekend away in the country in a secluded cottage. Murders follow.

All The Boys... tries to revitalize the genre by revealing the identity of the killer early on and staking more emotional weight in the conclusion. The complete lack of humor and tension in the film is its real downfall. I liked how they took it to extremes within its constraints of sexuality and drug use almost creating a satire. Almost. The characters are bland and hateful. I found them almost unwatchable and wanted the deaths to come a hell of a lot quicker. And by the time the conclusion rolls around the film has aimed to such levels of symbolism and subversion it's rendered obsolete and kind of meaningless. 

Again, we're coming up against a movie that is reactionary rather than focussing on entertaining and scaring its audience. While I congratulate the filmmakers for their knowledge of the genre, it's nothing that fans don't already know. I liked that Levine tried to create more visual interest on screen than your usual slasher flick but it all winds up looking like an emo art project aka a Death Cab For Cutie music video.

For all that Mandy Lane aspires to be, it's really just a cock tease.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Scream 4: Stab, Stab, Meta, Meta



There's a scene in Scream 4 where a character returns home with groceries, puts them down and carries on a conversation with another character. This may in fact be the most interesting scene of the movie. Or it was for me anyway. I could not take my eyes off the innocuous box of cereal in one of the groceries bags that had already been opened and re-closed with the tabs provided. What purpose does this serve? Is Ghost Face hiding in there? Is this a subtle nod to the economic downturn Woodsboro has faced and the residents now have to re-use their cereal boxes??

Yes, it's been a long time since Ghost Face made an appearance on the Woodsboro scene but in that time a whole generation of youngsters have grown up celebrating the lore that spawned the fictional film series, Stab. Our final girl, Sidney, returns to her hometown promoting her self-help book and encounters the other survivors of the first three films Gale and Dewey now not-so-happily married. If this sounds like a very special Lifetime movie, you're not too far off.

The murders come fast and dirty and act as a backdrop for our illustrious trio to work through their issues that they've had since the first movie. Sidney tries to stand her ground that she's not the victim and Gale and Dewey try to prove that opposites attract. The younger generation spend a lot of time establishing the "new rules". While I'm not saying these new rules are wrong, the scenes are confusingly written. Essentially, the film should work within the "X + Y = the new status quo" and let the murders follow. What happens in Scream 4 is one group of characters start a conversation, something happens and the conversation is dropped. Gale/Dewey/Sidney demands information and the conversation kind of continues, then gets dropped. Then the conversation picks up and finishes a half hour later. Which you can imagine makes for a long-ass movie.

The film does work within it's own Scream conceit. If you're a horror fan, specifically a slasher fan, the film is a fun exercise in subverting the genre. Granted they subvert it to a point that it's not really a slasher film but it is interesting. Every character has a motivation to be the murderer so at the end of the film you're left with 98% red herrings. Also, there are some interesting interpretations of how cell phones do and don't work.

More over, once you reach the end of the film it doesn't really matter who the killer is. It's a superfluous conceit. What matters is watching the returning characters and trying to figure out with them what the new rules are and how they work. For me, it's a fun movie. I was definitely not dissapointed I saw it. I can see how Scream 4 would irritate some as it essentially goes around in illogical  circles. But if you're interested in a rebooted-meta-slasher film it's actually kind of cool. (Also, a fun drinking game is to do a shot every time someone says "meta".)

But what of the cereal box friends???  Was the character simply hungry on the drive home? Is Ghost Face messing with Woodsboro's cereal supplies? I guess that's what they had everyone sign contracts for Scream 5 and 6 for.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Ode To Scream



I'll admit there's nothing original about this post. Yes, these are my thoughts on the Scream Trilogy on the heels of Scream 4's release. Lots of people are doing this but I've really enjoyed reading about the impact of this little movie on different people of different ages.

I was 11 when the first movie came out. I remember thinking how important that movie felt. I was only really just getting into horror movies and Scream provided a vocabulary with which to get through all the Friday the 13ths, Halloweens and Nightmare On Elm Streets. (which I did before I was 12) Granted it did give away a lot of spoilers but I genuinely thought these characters were cool, they spoke a secret language which was infinitely cooler than what I was saying. Also, they survived because of it. And who doesn't like living? Hell, despite my student loans I still like it.

The tropes that had become parodied within the genre were given a new life by Kevin Williamson's script. Scream still holds up and keeps the tongue-and-cheek tone while maintaining some truly scary moments. I still shiver a bit whenever I get near a garage door.

And oh, the first 15 minutes! They redefined the horror genre. It's a stand alone moment of truly eerie vulnerability and my favourite performance by Drew Barrymore. Scream created iconic moment after iconic moment. While it never scared me in the way something like The Ring or Pet Sematary did, it's an incredibly fun and suspenseful ride that deals with the sins of the parent and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Then Scream 2 and Scream 3 came out. They were... I guess underwhelming is the most polite phrase I can use. The cast were made up of a who's who of WB series and lacked any real importance. For a movie that aspires to comment on the inadequacies of a genre it gets a bit boring after a while. The series became its own beast relentlessly riffing on the failures of other horror films while falling prey to them. The monotonous and never ending red-herrings are pointless and boring. A true case for the fact that lightening does not strike twice. Once Dimension realized what a hit the Scream franchise would be the subsequent films seem to have gotten lost in endless gimmicks. 

That's not to say I didn't get excited when they announced Scream 4. Maybe they would realize the error of their ways and give Williamson and Craven their freedom back. But recently both Williamson and Craven have come out denouncing their input into the film. I fear we may have another Scream 3 on our hands.

And what's the harm in that? I think the harm is the loss of potential. Look at the mass of blog, websites, documentaries, books, film classes and God knows what else that deal in discourse about our beloved genre. At worst Scream 4 will miss an opportunity to look at the impact of media on violence, which is a discussion worth having, but only from people who know what they are talking about.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Problem With Female Characters in Horror

I've been noticing something recently. I haven't stopped watching horror movies but I certainly turn them off a lot quicker.

To wit, last night I tried watching First Born a movie that came out in 2007 starring Elizabeth Shue whom I've harbored a deep love for since she was in Adventures In Babysitting. In this film she's a dancer living in New York married to some wealthy awkward British guy. They move into a weird house when she gets pregnant and then strange shit starts happening. But Dancer McDancey is all crazy. She's silly, thoughtless and kind of detestable. I stopped watching it because I didn't want to watch someone I was starting to like less and less solve something I couldn't really care that much about. Also, I think it was probably her fault.

She's not the only one. Sarah Polley in Splice, Emily Blunt in The Wolfman, that chick from Piranah 3D who's name I don't feel like looking up because I hated that movie so much, those chicks in The Walking Dead....
These are characters whom I'm supposed to be identifying with as a woman but mainly they're just whiny, incompetent, bratty and immature. The reason this is bugging me more than if this were a blog about romantic comedies is because horror has some of the best roles for women and they're letting me down. This is a genre that brought us the ladies of The Descent, Rachel from the Ring, Chris from The Exorcist and a bajillion Final Girls. But recently horror films seem to be centering their plots around women who can't figure things out.

It feels as though there has been a definite shift. Perhaps the problem lies in the actresses getting cast, the people writing the scripts, the directors or the companies that make the movies...

Let's do a case study, A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 vs A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010. Nancy is one of my all-time favourite Final Girls. In 1984 looks and behaves like an intelligent teenager and when people start dying she gets all Inspector Clueso on us and solves that shit by thinking and setting traps. Awesome, right? I remember watching that movie when I was 11 and being so happy watching a character with drive and logic. It made sense to me later that Wes Craven stated he wrote that part as an inspiration to his daughter. In 2010 Nancy is 25 (not really in the film, but she sure as hell looks it) and whines and cries her way through this abomination of a movie. What happened? The filmmakers had a perfect model in Heather Langenkamp's Nancy but noooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Take away the strength and tenacity of Nancy in the first film and replace it with depressed simpering and you've got 2010 Nancy.



I fear the tonal shift in female roles comes from the way we represent ourselves. More often than not it is still socially unacceptable for women to take the lead and demand more from their partners, friends or themselves. The characters I've listed earlier (Sarah from The Descent, Rachel from The Ring and Chris from The Exorcist) are single mothers. There is something indicative of a strong woman being unable to keep a partner which becomes an inherent deficiency in the eyes of society .

Art hold a mirror up to society like nobody's business. I guess I shouldn't complain if the people I can't stand in real life are the people I can't stand in movies.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spare Change



There is no real way to write cleverly about Hobo With A Shotgun (2011). Filmmaker Jason Eisener packs every frame with a purpose, something truly rare in a Grindhouse movie. I mean, that's what I assume happened when I was wasn't yelping or trying to hide behind my friend who was in turn trying to hide behind me.

And this is a Grindhouse movie. Drive Angry, which I loved, is a more palatable version of Hobo. Not that one is better or worse but there were definitely moments where I had to look away. There were even a few moments where I scream, frightening myself and my friend.Out loud. In a packed theatre.

The plot is a simple one. A hobo can no longer tolerate the violence he sees in a corrupt town and fights back with a shotgun. Nothing you couldn't gleam from the title, right? Well Eisener (who also functions as the editor) wants that. He takes the simple plot and subverts and obscures most of what you think is coming.

Hobo With A Shotgun is not for everyone. It is extremely violent but Eisener again sets up the plot so the rise in violence makes sense rather than just bloodbath after bloodbath.When the Hobo fights back, the crime lord gets more violent to instill more fear. Not what I'd do, but it makes sense for the character. It's not violence for the sake of violence (ok, maybe a little bit...) The film in and of itself is impressive because it moves along and is imbued with enough plot to keep it going for just over 90 minutes.

Their best asset in the whole movie is the Hobo himself Rutger Hauer. The film never makes fun of him or being homeless. Rather we are shown an entire world view of someone who's been on the streets for a long time. It centres the film and gives it a greater weight to everything that happens because of this. It becomes a surprisingly poignant film which is perhaps why the violence is so effective. You actually like the characters because you understand their motivations. Funny that.

For a film that is so dated (I guess early 90s due to the snap bracelets) it remains relevant because it is about standing by and doing nothing only to see the world go to hell.

As my friend exited the theatre he was pretty shook up. Fair enough, me too. I remarked, isn't it nice to know that we aren't so desensitized to violence? He gave me a weary look and we decided there wasn't much to talk about in regards to the film. What more can you say? It's about social justice and responsibility and while making us squeamish it still made us laugh. I don't know what it says about us. But I do know my friend gave some shiny change to some homeless people that night.