Disclaimer: My reviews of media here do not mean that I lay any claim to the media in question. All reviews are entirely subjective. I may talk about how well the movie objectively works in my opinion, but it essentially all comes down to what I think of the movie. My liking a movie is not the same as thinking it's a great movie. If I trash a movie that you love, or love a movie you can’t stand, it’s not because I hate you. Also, all reviews are likely to contain SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the movies in question and don’t want to know what happens, then you probably shouldn’t be reading about them here. Finally, a blanket trigger warning for people who don't want to read about common horror movie content such as sexism, racism, violence, etc.: I will likely discuss all of the above when they show up in the films I review, so please tread with caution. Check out this post for more on how my reviews are set up.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Horror Episode Review: Bates Motel, Episode 3

Episode 3: What’s Wrong with Norman

Overall: C+
Acting: C+
Writing: C
Story: C+
Technical aspects: C
Effects: C

Directed by:
Paul Edwards

Freddie Highmore
Vera Farmiga
Max Thieriot
Nicola Peltz
Olivia Cooke
Mike Vogel

Particular trigger warnings: creepy incest vibes, images of/implied slavery, mentioned rape
Passes the Bechdel test? No.

            The plot continues to thicken. As was fairly obvious from the last episode, Dylan (Max Thieriot) is now working guarding the pot fields. Emma (Olivia Cooke) confesses to Norman (Freddie Highmore) that she hadn’t initially believed that the sketchbook described anything real, but had just wanted to spend time with him; however, now she realizes it is true and feels like they have to do something about it. Norman tells her to give the book back and forget about it. Norman then has a blackout in class, and is hospitalized. Bradley (Nicola Peltz) visits him, and Norma (Vera Farmiga) checks him out early. The police have searched the house, and Norman confesses that he kept Keith Summers’ belt after they disposed of his body, and the belt is now missing. Norma meets with Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel), and he tells her that he took the belt and is willing to protect her. Later, Norman hallucinates his mother blaming him for the danger they could be in from the police, and she tells him to go to the Deputy’s house to retrieve the belt. While there, he finds a locked room in the basement, and a terrified Chinese girl locked in; apparently one of the girls depicted in the sketchbook.

            This is one of those times I feel somewhat conflicted, this time about pacing. I’ve complained a lot about shows that feel like they’re plodding along without progress toward a goal (see pretty much every review of an episode of The River.) This time it feels like it’s racing along too fast, especially where Norman is concerned. The hint of crazy during his attack on his brother (defending Norma’s honor) was good. And the reveal in this episode that he didn’t remember doing so is also good. But adding in the scene where he’s envisioning his teacher in bondage, that he’s full-on hallucinating conversations with his mother… seems like it’s jumping pretty far forward. The allure, in my opinion, of a “prequel” of sorts to the Psycho story that we know, is in seeing how he got that way. And the controlling, manipulative actions of Norma’s in the first episode especially, though continuing into the second, really make sense as the kind of thing that’ll fuck a kid up, considering the codependent/near-incestuous relationship they have. But now we’re being shown a Norman who is clearly already all the way crazy, not one who is slowly slipping.
            There could also be complaints regarding how convenient it is that all of our characters find ways to be tied to each other. The Deputy with the enslaved women, Dylan with the drug ring, etc. But hey, it’s a show with a relatively short guaranteed run, so I’m willing to forgive that. (Though I think it’d make more sense if they also did more to capture the small-town feel in other ways.)
            Once again, I found it jarring when we’re given scenes that really look like they could be set decades in the past (the old-style TV, a lot of the wardrobe, the rest of the sets in the Bates’ home) and then someone whips out their iPhone. I don’t know if it’s some kind of deliberate anachronistic choice, if I’m supposed to be inferring great meaning from it, or what.
            The acting was pretty all over the place. Freddie Highmore is great, I think, and there were a couple scenes where he looked very much like Anthony Perkins. And I still really like Vera Farmiga as Norma. Most of the rest was pretty serviceable. But Nicola Peltz had some badly delivered lines… she’s seemed shaky to me on and off since episode one, but this one was not her best.
            Otherwise, everything seems pretty unremarkable, in a not entirely bad way. Nothing about the sound direction or filming or effects sticks out in a bad way, but nothing being done makes me think “oh, that’s amazing” either.
            The bad things (some lousy acting, weird pacing) bugged me a little more this episode, but not in a way that makes the show unwatchable or anything. I’ll keep tuning in.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Horror Episode Review: Bates Motel, Episode 2

Episode 2: Nice Town You Picked, Norma

Overall: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: C+
Story: B-
Technical aspects: C
Effects: B

Directed by:
Tucker Gates

Freddie Highmore
Vera Farmiga
Max Thieriot
Nicola Peltz
Olivia Cooke
Mike Vogel

Particular trigger warnings: creepy incest vibes
Passes the Bechdel test? Yes, barely.

Episode 2 is an episode mostly devoted to thickening the plot, it seems. Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) older half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot) shows up to stay, despite his obvious hatred for Norma (Vera Farmiga). One of Norman’s friends, Bradley (Nicola Peltz) witnesses her father crash his car, after he’d been burned alive. The authorities are more deeply investigating Keith Summers’ disappearance. Deputy Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel) starts to reveal to Norma that there are some… odd and less-than-legal practices common in the town, beneath its “small-town charm.” And when Norman starts a project with another friend, Emma (Olivia Cooke), she finds the sketchbook he’d found in the house, and investigates the drawings of tortured women, and she comes to believe that the drawings describe real events. Later, Norman and Emma stumble upon a field of weed in the woods, after which they’re pursued by armed men. And apparently the “eye for an eye” justice that Deputy Shelby described has led to another man being burned.

I liked this episode more than I liked the first one. There’s at least some sense of an ongoing plot forming. We get to see how Norman himself is already a little unhinged, especially regarding how other people may treat his mother, yet how naïve he seems in other regards, like with Emma when she kisses him. Norma still switches back and forth between “good mother” mode and “oh-so-creepy” quite well. (I definitely laughed at the “It’s not like it’s weird!” line.)
I’m not sure yet how I feel about the characters we’ve been introduced to. The addition of a brother seems odd, though his absence from prior canon can probably be easily explained by how unwelcome he seems in the family. I’m wondering if we’re going to be stuck with an obnoxious love triangle plot in the future with Bradley, Norman, and Emma, but I suppose we’ll see. (It’s fairly obvious that nothing will really work out in the long run, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to drag it out.) I'm also skeptical about their skill in handling Emma's cystic fibrosis; this episode already seemed inconsistent regarding it. One scene she's gasping for breath walking up the hill, but then she's able to run away from the men chasing them without too much visible trouble.
            The hints so far about whatever underbelly the town’s economy is based on are interesting enough, though it's apparently pot, which was maybe revealed a little too quickly. (Dropping hints about the town's dark side is well and good, but they could have gotten a little more tension out of it.) I do wonder just how “small” this “small town” is supposed to be. It seemed like it was supposed to be pretty small, both to fit Norma’s idea of a new life with Norman, and from comments made about how everyone knows everyone… yet much of it feels larger to me.
            The technical aspects are all still pretty good. The effects have been good, too, even if it’s not an effects-heavy show.
            I probably liked this episode a little better than the first one, so we’ll see if the trend continues.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Horror Episode Review: Bates Motel, Episode 1

Episode 1: First You Dream, Then You Die

Overall: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C
Story: C
Technical aspects: B
Effects: C

Directed by:
Tucker Gates

Vera Farmiga
Freddie Highmore

Particular trigger warnings: rape, family being manipulative, creepy incest vibes
Passes the Bechdel test? no

After the death of her husband, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) decides to move from Arizona to Oregon with her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), to purchase a motel. They arrive in Oregon and begin to fix the place up, but the previous owner of the property, Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), begins harassing them. Spoilers follow: Norma tries to keep Norman from going out, especially once it’s clear that some of the popular girls of the town are befriending him, but he sneaks out to party with them anyway. While he’s gone, Summers breaks into the house and rapes Norma, though Norman arrives in time to rescue her. She kills Summers, and convinces Norman to help her hide his body.

All right, I have my reservations about this show, which is an absolutely TERRIBLE pun that I didn’t intend at all, but now I can't bear to remove it. I’m sorry. It’s a contemporary prequel to Psycho, which is... meh. I’d prefer it be set in the correct time period to fit with the original story, and it’s odd because parts of it feel like they are. It’s not until the girls whip out their cell phones that it really feels like a modern piece. It comes across almost as if it was originally intended to be set decades ago, and then they just decided that was too hard to maintain. So hey, iPhones for everyone! BUT, since that’s personal preference, I’ll try not to let it cloud too much of my opinion.
It doesn’t quite feel like the same sort of horror as Psycho, though I can see it setting it up… maybe. I will say that Norma is written pretty well, alternating between almost girlish, giggly, creepily girlfriend-ish behavior toward Norman, and her controlling and manipulative side. It’s seriously creepy (and I think Vera Farmiga pulls it off very well.) The manipulation and guilting is very “real” feeling, to the point of almost being upsetting (especially the scene at the dinner table where she tells him that of course he can join track; she’ll just do everything herself, like she always does.) Plus, of course, the immensely creepy, obsessive, pseudo-incest vibes.
I’m not very impressed with their decision to include a pretty graphic (for something airing on a basic cable channel) rape scene. (Not that it really would have been any better if it’d been less graphic.) Yes, it’s a subject I’m touchy about, but it’s the kind of thing that it just shitty to throw in as “motivation” for something else. (In this case for Norman to stay closer to his mother and to help her hide the body.) It’s not a topic that should be used purely as a plot device, and it’s used that way far too often across just about every kind of media. That shit is not cool.
The episode also felt a bit rushed, which is maybe unavoidable. The series didn’t get a true pilot, but this was still the episode intended to establish the characters and setting. It does that, but it has to do so and have a self-contained story in 45 minutes or so. As a consequence, the development isn’t especially subtle.
The tech is fine, though not especially revolutionary. I did like the overhead shot of the officer in the bathroom. The set design is very good, especially with the house. It very much looks like the original house from the Psycho film, even if it’s been transplanted in time.
There isn’t much in the way of effects, so that’s hard to judge. There’s some blood and it didn’t look bad.
So yeah. It was… okay. It’s probably worth it to me to stick through a couple more episodes, at least. I am curious to see where it goes, and there’s enough done right that I want to see how it progresses. But I won’t say that I’m amazingly impressed or that I’d be heartbroken to miss an episode and catch it later. I do hope some of the issues improve when they have a little more room to devote to development rather than just establishment.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Horror Movie Review: Scourge (2008)

Overall: D
Acting: C
Writing: D
Story: D
Technical aspects: C
Effects: D

Directed by:
Jonas Quastel

Russell Ferrier
Robyn Ledoux
Nic Rhind

Particular trigger warnings: nothing I can really remember
Passes the Bechdel test: also not that I remember

            This whole thing has a “the worst of Syfy original movie” all over it. But maybe I just have a difficult time taking “Ultimate Evil” seriously when it expresses itself in belches and farts. Also, this is a bit more of a synopsis than a summary, because you should not feel at all compelled to watch this movie, so I feel no guilt in telling you exactly why it sucks.

            So basically the plot is that an ancient evil called “The Scourge” was locked up by priests a long time ago in the foundation of a church. In a fire, said evil is released, and possesses a fireman. We get some gross-out scenes as the young fireman suddenly begins eating everything he can – sticks of butter, cartons of expired milk, mayonnaise, etc. He goes to shower, starts belching and gurgling, and acting somewhat zombie-ish.
            Meanwhile, our main character Jesse (Robyn Ledoux) runs into our other main character Scott (Nic Rhind.) Apparently, the two were friends at once point, but Scott got in trouble with the law and with Jesse’s uncle, the sheriff. He was in prison for a while, but has since gotten out, and he was of course never a bad guy, but had simply taken the fall for someone else, now just wants to move on, etc. Jesse is a bit interested in him, but Scott already has a girlfriend.
            Later, the zombie-ish belching firefighter shows up at Scott’s hockey game and causes some chaos. He ends up wandering into the locker room, where Scott’s girlfriend joins him. Naturally she’s been cheating on Scott with the fireman, and is planning on a quicky in the locker room. (At her boyfriend’s hockey game… obviously.) So the fireman kneels down, and belches up a badly CGI’d evil squid bug thing that invades her bellybutton and possesses her. She goes through the same zombie-changes as the fireman, but presumably because she’s a hot chick there’s less eating and belching.
            She winds up going to a club and passing on the evil infection thing to a new guy in the bathroom. Scott has followed her, and he confronts her just in time to watch her spontaneously hemorrhage and die. Scott is assumed to have killed her, and since the fireman’s body turned up at his hockey match, the sheriff is after him.
            Blah blah, they figure out how to kill it, though I’m not sure why they need to do what they do (it involves electricity and alcohol.) Meanwhile the evil keeps getting passed from person to person, before it eventually gets passed to an obese photographer guy. Jesse sets out to seduce him and bring him back to a motel room where she and Scott can try to get the evil out of him. They attempt this, and it jumps to Scott. And because he’s the hero, he’s immediately aware of this, and rather than making him do unsexy things like belch and ravenously eat, he just tries to kill Jesse.
            A secret order priest type shows up at the end to conquer the evil and save Scott and Jesse, and the obese photographer is taken to the hospital. The priest man explains that they’ve gotten rid of most of the Scourge, but he’s always hunting down any remaining ones.
            Then insert one of those stupid “the end… or is it?” endings, letting us know that the horror isn’t really over!

            What a stupid movie. The acting is average, and is probably what can be complained about least. And don’t get me wrong, because the acting isn’t good. It’s just not as bad as everything else. The story itself isn’t unforgiveably awful, the idea of an ancient evil parasite jumping host to host, but it’s hard to find a way it could be more poorly executed. The most obvious thing wrong is the belching, farting, zombie-hosts. It’s just stupid. It’s consistently stupid. And if this were supposed to be a horror-comedy or a parody of some kind, it’d still be stupid, but understandable. But no, it’s played straight. And it’s clear that the writers realize that it’s stupid, as the hot girl that gets possessed and the hero both are spared the gross/stupid bits of the possession. The effects look awful – it’s bad CGI, and when it’s bad, it’s bad. And a maybe petty complaint when there’s already so much wrong – but the bellybutton is not an orifice! It doesn’t stretch to accommodate something entering the body through it and then return to normal immediately! It’s just… stupid.
            There’s really no serious gore in their violence, minus the girl bleeding out in once scene and the pretty non-explicit electrocuting of the guy in an attempt to draw out the Scourge. There’s only moderate sexuality when a girl showers and the fact that the parasite being passed from mouth to belly button usually is accomplished by implying oral sex is going to happen. It gets an R rating mostly due to language, meaning the younger pre-teen male audience that would probably appreciate the bodily humor couldn’t actually see it. It seems like it would have been better cut to PG or PG-13 and left to cable television and late night timeslots on SyFy, because it certainly didn’t deserve a DVD release.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Horror Movie Review: Forget Me Not (2009)

Overall: C
Acting: C
Writing: C-
Story: C+
Technical aspects: C
Effects: D

Directed by:
Tyler Oliver

Carly Schroeder
Cody Linley
Micha Alberti
Brie Gabrielle
Jillian Murray
Zachary Abel
Sean Wing
Chloe Bridges
Brittany Renee Finamore

Passes the Bechdel test? Yes
Particular triggers: nothing I can really think of

In this review, the summary and my reactions and opinions are all lumped together. So spoilers abound through it all.

Forget Me Not jumps right in, showing us our cast of 20-and-30-somethings playing unlikable teens doing unlikable things. This movie suffers incredibly from the problem of having too many characters introduced that are more or less physically and characteristically indistinguishable from each other. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took me almost to the halfway mark to even learn all of their names.
So we have Sandy (Carly Schroeder) the class president, who is dating supposedly bad-boy Jake (Micha Alberti), though he’s never shown to do anything more “bad” than the rest of them. There’s Sandy’s brother Eli (Cody Linley), the valedictorian who just wants to be a pirate. There’s Jake’s sister Lex (Jillian Murray) the supposedly bad-girl who is dating TJ (Sean Wing). There’s Chad (Zachary Abel) who is stringing along two women, cheating on both because he is our Even More Unlikable Douche character. The two women he’s screwing are Layla (Chloe Bridges) and Hannah (Brie Gabrielle). For additional drama, Eli also has a thing for Hannah. And our whole group has just graduated high school, and are planning on going on a vacation together.
The strain on my suspension of disbelief starts in right away. A) None of these people look even remotely like recent high school graduates. That’s not uncommon in horror, or even film in general, but this is pretty egregious. B) None of these people act like high schoolers either, and not just because of the truly endless alcohol, weed, and sex they seem to have available. C) I know this is nit-picky, but how many people do you know that have had the identical large friend group since they were young kids? For that matter, how many friend groups have not one, but two sets of siblings that have the exact same social circle? And how many people do you know that maintain childhood friendships, and then only manage to date within that same circle? One or two of these issues could be pretty easily ignored, but there was just nothing about this batch of people that made me believe they were their characters, or that those characters could be real people.
So our group is hanging out and they decide to go to the local graveyard to play a game they played there as kids. It’s a “ghost in the graveyard” game like hide and seek, where the “ghost” has to find the other players and turns them into ghosts until only one person is left “alive.” As they get ready to play, a mysterious girl shows up and asks if she can play too. This is Angela (Brittany Renee Finamore.) At the end of the game, she jumps off a cliff (who builds a graveyard next to a cliff? Erosion is a real thing, people), claiming that soon Sandy will remember her. The police can’t find a body when they investigate.
As the friend group goes about their business the following day, Sandy remembers her childhood friend Angela, the girl who taught her the ghost in the graveyard game. Then people start getting offed… and Sandy suddenly realizes that she’s the only one who remembers the people who’ve been killed. The others don’t have any memory of them at all. And reality seems to be changing around them, as if they didn’t ever exist. (For instance someone’s tattoo of a now-dead character’s name disappears, their plans to go to the beach have changed to plans to go to the mountains, etc.)
In some ways I liked this. It sort of subverts the usual plotline, where everyone realizes that their group is being killed off, and is aware that they’re in danger, but then acts stupidly anyway. At least this time, they don’t even realize that their friends are missing. If you cared about the characters, it could even be psychologically hard-hitting to realize that they won’t even remember their significant others or siblings. Honestly, I like this as a plot line, and think it could have been really well utilized in a more suspenseful movie, but unfortunately it seemed to be somewhat wasted in this film.
The plot goes on, more of them are offed, everyone assumes Sandy is crazy, blah blah. Sandy tries to find out what Angela has to do with the murders, while no one will help her. The resolution isn’t really surprising… the motivations are pretty standard for this kind of “pick a group off one by one” deal, though that’s usually a slasher trope, and this doesn’t really feel like a slasher. I suppose you could argue that it is one, but without an actual physical slasher-who-does-the-slashing.
I had so many problems with the believability of this movie that I feel kind of bad even giving it a C. In terms of tech it’s okay – the sound and cinematography are nothing special, but they’re fine. The effects are laughable. I DID literally laugh at the ghosts several times. A mix of bad Halloween costume masks and bad CGI. But ugh… the unbelievable characters. Not that badly acted, all things considered, just horribly miscast and poorly written. The plot isn’t outstandingly original, but I mentioned that I liked this take on it, at least to some extent. Sadly, it’s the characters themselves really ruin it for me. One saving grace may be turning it around and viewing the villain as the protagonist, which could reframe the story in an interesting way. I didn’t really want to watch the film again with this in mind just to find out, though. Despite my issues, I did find the movie to be very watchable, and I enjoyed it at times. It just has too many glaring flaws for me to consider it “good.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Horror Movie Quick Review: The Rite (2011)

Overall: B

Directed by:
Mikael Håfström

Anthony Hopkins
Colin O’Donoghue

I liked this one pretty well, but at the same time it didn’t feel like it did anything new.

The basic plot is that Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) begins training in seminary. Having a crisis of faith, he goes to Italy as a last attempt to renew his belief in God, and begins studying with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), supposedly an exorcist. Michael doesn’t believe that demonic possession is real, and he still questions his faith. But then Father Trevant is possessed, and Michael is forced to take on the role of exorcist.

It’s a movie that is pretty good at what it does, and is well acted. But it also feels like it followed the recipe for making a movie about demonic possession and exorcism to the letter. There’s the main character having a moral crisis over his beliefs and whether or not he really has a vocation, there’s the demon that causes the possessed person to speak in tongues and talk about how the main character’s dead family is rotting/burning in hell, the demon is exorcised, and the main character finds his faith. Hooray!

If you like that type of movie, this one will probably not disappoint you. But if you’re looking for something new and different, this doesn’t really deliver.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Horror Movie Review: Seconds Apart (2011)

Overall: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: C
Story: B
Technical aspects: B
Effects: B

Directed by:
Antonio Negret

Edmund Entin
Gary Entin
Orlando Jones
Samantha Droke

Particular trigger warnings: coerced suicide, self-harm
Passes the Bechdel test: I don’t believe so

            Seconds Apart is about a pair of identical twins, Jonah (Edmund Entin) and Seth (Gary Entin), who have a psychic connection with each other that allows them to control people’s minds. The brothers, to put it lightly, do not use this power for good. When they were children they killed their babysitter; as teens, they’re doing a “project” where they force people to kill others or themselves, so the brothers can film them as they die. The people they control rarely seem to have any sense that they’re being controlled, and rarely fight the illusions… instead they seem to believe what they are doing is entirely normal. This “project” is apparently an attempt by Jonah and Seth to experience some emotion that they believe they are incapable of feeling. Their sadistic project is somewhat at odds with what appears to be an idyllic home life in a beautiful house with almost Stepford-esque parents.
            Investigating the deaths at the twins’ school is Detective Lampkin (Orlando Jones), a man haunted by memories of the death of his wife in a house fire. The twins frequently prey on these memories, trying to torment the detective.
            Meanwhile, a new girl named Eve (Samantha Droke) transfers to the school, and befriends Jonah. This begins to drive a wedge between the brothers, as Jonah becomes more interested in her, and wishes to drop the “project” with Seth.
I don’t want to spoil the pseudo-“twist” to the ending; it’s not the most shocking out there, and doesn’t change a lot about the plot itself, but I enjoyed it and what it showed about the characters.

            I really enjoyed this movie, though there are some really valid criticisms. One is that it’s a bit disjointed. That was distracting for my boyfriend when we watched it, though I didn’t notice it much at the time. But just trying to summarize it above, I’m reminded of it when I realize how much I didn’t mention.
I’m not sure how the detective jumps so easily to suspecting the twins. He gets some anecdotal evidence from other students, and they play some conceited mindgames with him, but it still seems like a pretty big jump for him to make.
 Some of the “tension” was obviously manufactured, for example with their murder of their babysitter being hinted at several times throughout the film as if it should be a shock when it’s revealed… but because they’ve already been shown killing people, that’s the obvious conclusion, devoid of any real suspense or surprise.
There’s a lot made of the “it” that the brothers hope to feel, but it’s left somewhat to interpretation what “it” is. (Uh… unless I missed it somehow?) It could be fear, as that’s what they believe they should experience at witnessing death, but if they want to feel fear, I’m unsure why they don’t do anything to put themselves in danger. I don’t want to immediately blame poor writing for that – it could be a deliberate choice to leave it to audience interpretation. But honestly, it mostly just leaves me confused more than thoughtful.
The introduction of Eve as the plot device to force the brothers apart is a bit cliché as well… the “woman causes divide between two close male friends/family members” isn’t exactly an original trope, and she didn’t have much characterization outside of that.
But the movie was very well-acted, including the rather surprising choice of Orlando Jones as the detective, and the chemistry between the brothers in particular was wonderful. The “twist” at the end is pretty creepy and well handled, in my opinion. I liked that the individual characters (with the unfortunate exception of Eve) were all quite complex – Detective Lampkin’s personal traumas didn’t feel too overstated, and gave him enough dimension to be interesting, and the twins’ relationship with each other vs. their relationships with the rest of the world contrast really well.
The world of the movie itself felt quite surreal, somehow removed from the real world. It felt fantasy-ish, something like the stylized settings in Willard or even in Edward Scissorhands, possibly because of the Victorian semi-Gothic aesthetics of the film. I enjoyed that, though it might not be to everyone’s liking.
There is less “horror” to the film in some ways. There are some scares in terms of the murders, but much of the horror comes from knowing what the brothers are capable of, not necessarily just what’s happening on screen. There’s a lot more focus on the drama between the characters and suspense. Again, I enjoyed that, but that may be disappointing if you aren’t expecting interpersonal drama and twisted psychology. Objectively this probably wouldn’t get a B+, but that’s what I give it for my personal enjoyment.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Horror Movie Review: Hyenas (2011)

Overall: C-
Acting: C
Writing: D
Story: C-
Technical aspects: C
Effects: D

Directed by:
Eric Weston

Costas Mandylor
Meshach Taylor
Joshua Alba
Christina Murphy
Derrick Kosinski
Andrew James Allen
Christa Campbell

Particular trigger warnings: Mexican racial slurs
Passes the Bechdel test? Yes, but barely.

If you are hoping for a horror film that brings mostly unintentional comedy, this could be the choice for you. Because this was bad, but mostly silly-bad, with much of the camp probably deliberate.

Hyenas has several plot threads going, none of them especially compelling. First we have the story of Gannon (Costas Mandylor), a man whose wife and infant child were killed by a breed of “were-hyenas” brought to North America by slave traders. He’s initially unbelieving when it comes to the existence of these werehyenas, but a man named “Crazy Briggs” (Meshach Taylor), a hunter of these creatures, convinces him. Crazy Briggs takes Gannon on as something of an apprentice hunter.
Then suddenly that part of the movie just kind of… ends for a while, and we’re taken to an apparent gang war in the local small town between the obnoxious white kids and the Hispanic kids. Bobby (Derrick Kosinski) leads the white kids against Marco (Joshua Alba), the leader of the Hispanic kids. Complicating things, Bobby is hazing/recruiting Jasper (Andrew James Allen), whose older sister Gina (Christina Murphy) is dating Marco. Drama!
Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the leader of the matriarchal hyena clan is dying, and so the disparate packs are meeting in the mines outside the town to pick a new leader. Wilda (Christa Campbell) seems poised to take over.
Back with Gannon, they rescue a girl from some of the hyenas, leading to an incredibly contrived plot twist that I doubt anyone was fooled by if they were paying any attention.
Eventually the plots converge somewhat by coincidence, as Gannon and Crazy Briggs head to the caves to kill Wilda and the rest, while Bobby and Marco go there to fight out their issues, and Gina follows them in order to stop them.
[Spoilers] There’s a silly action-y ending, that again I doubt will come as much of a surprise to anyone: Bobby and Marco are suddenly friends, most of the good guys escape (minus a dramatic self-sacrifice,) and most of the bad guys get blown up. [End spoilers.]

This movie is just so damn silly. It’s often entertainingly so, but much of the badness also comes just from sloppy writing and inconsistencies. I joked that when it cut to a scene about the white kids/Mexican kids’ rivalry that they’d never be referred to again and that they would have nothing to do with the rest of the film… and I wasn’t really that far off. Most of the movie seems to be about the struggle Gina has with her brother being drafted into the white kids’ gang, and yet that’s ultimately inconsequential to the rest of the film and the hyena plot. It causes some additional tension between Bobby and Marco, but it was established that they hated each other whether Jasper and Gina were in the picture or not. Eventually, despite taking up a whole lot of screen time in the first half, Jasper’s character is pretty much dropped from the movie and has nothing to do with the resolution. I kept expecting the douchey white kid gang to have something to do with the hyenas, but there was no connection between the pack and either gang; the storylines only cross by coincidence when the characters wind up in the same place, rendering the “dramatic” gang plotline absolutely unnecessary.
There are a lot of times where it seems like there were a few scenes missing or something, where there are unexplained character changes or passages of time. For instance, it seems that Gannon and Crazy Briggs are the only two people to know about the were-hyenas, but then at one point Gannon is getting a report from another hunter that was never mentioned or introduced. At another point there’s a brief bit of narration by Briggs that tells us how he started training Gannon (rather than showing us any of said training) but it’s unclear how much time has passed. We later find out that it was three years since Gannon’s family was killed, but nothing in the narration made it clear that we’d skipped so far ahead until he mentions it. Toward the very end, [spoilers,] Bobby and Marco are ready to kill each other, and yet thirty seconds later they decide they’re BFFs. Granted they were faced with a cave full of werehyenas, but it goes beyond temporary truce and into the unrealistic “now we’ve overcome our differences!” resolution. [End spoilers.]
The effects are laughable mixes of bad costuming and bad CG hyenas. The “transformations” prompted snorts and giggles. Of course, your experience may be helped or hindered by the fact that Wilda has to take off her clothes every time she’s going to transform (a trait not apparently shared by any of the not-as-hot-as-Christa Campbell-werehyenas.) The nudity is still relatively lacking (nipple-less boobs!) but hey, it’s there should that be a draw for you. (Though would people find her as hot if she, like real female hyenas, had basically a pseudo penis? Just wondering. Maybe she does; we don’t see it.)
If you’re a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, you may recognize most of the mythology about the hyenas as being very similar to what was mentioned in the episode “The Pack” from the first season, where Xander and some other kids were possessed by hyena spirits. And honestly, I think I’d rather watch that episode a few more times than this movie. Still, the film is entertaining and campy and easy to laugh at.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Horror Movie Quick Review: Shadow Puppets (2007)

Overall: C-

Directed by:
Michael Winnick

James Marsters
Tony Todd
Marc Winnick
Jolene Blalock

Shadow Puppets is the story of eight seemingly random people who wake up in an abandoned asylum, none of them with any memory of how they got there. As they meet up with each other, they begin to search for a way out. But there’s some kind of sentient shadow monster lurking, which is hunting them and picking them off. They find a machine apparently used in experiments on erasing memories, and they rightly figure that since the machine was used eight times, it must have been used on them. [Reasonably minor spoilers] But when they find a ninth stranger in a coma, they realize that one of them has not had their memories erased, and that person must be the one behind everything. And so the traitor in the group is discovered and begins trying to kill everyone. [End spoilers]

This movie suffered the most from having way too many characters introduced in way too short a period of time. And because they don’t learn their names until halfway or more through the film, I was just giving them insulting nicknames the entire film, because otherwise I had no way to tell who was who.
The story starts off somewhat intriguing, with the strangers in the asylum, wondering what their pasts hold and why the building seems abandoned… but as soon as the (poorly animated) Shadow shows up, it just gets somewhat… silly. Its presence is never really explained (or rather, the explanation makes no sense.) If the pseudo-monster had been removed in favor of focusing just on the idea of the science experiment on their memories, it would have been an improvement. And anyway, most of the characters get little individual screentime outside of our mains, so when they’re killed and in danger it didn’t resonate any with me.
There are also several small but silly inconsistencies (things as simple as the characters constantly complaining that they’re freezing, but never wrapping themselves in the sheets they all have from the beds they awoke in.)
The movie was okay, but it started far better than it finished, and had more than a few moments that were unintentionally funny out of sheer ridiculousness.

Horror Movie Review: The Tenement (2003)

Overall: D
Acting: D
Writing: D-
Story: D+
Technical aspects: D+
Effects: D

Directed by:
Glen Baisley

Joe Lauria
Michael Gingold
C. J. DiMarsico
John Studol
Mike Lane
Ed Shelinsky
Danielle Russo

Particular trigger warnings: sexual assault, animal cruelty, prostitution, hard drug use
Passes the Bechdel test? I don’t think so

I basically give a synopsis below, because it’s hard to pick apart otherwise. Beware of spoilers all the way through.

The Tenement is a series of four loosely related stories about different occupants of the same tenement house.
The movie starts with a man named Ethan (Pete Barker) speaking to the owner of the building (Jude Pucillo.) Ethan says that he used to live there forty years ago, and he wants to know if the new owner has seen the building do anything strange to the people living there. Ethan begins to reminisce about the time he lived there.
We suddenly cut to a scene of a girl being kidnapped and crucified as part of a cultic ritual, but we soon find out that this is just a crappy movie within our crappy movie, as this is part of Ethan’s memory. It’s 1980 and Ethan (Joe Lauria) lives in his apartment with his bedridden mother (Doreen Valdati) and spends his time either at work or at home watching horror films by director Winston Korman (Michael Gingold), whom he idolizes. Well, Korman is in town casting for a new film, and Ethan is paid to deliver black roses to him. He gets mistaken for a prospective actor, but when he can’t act and freezes up, Korman laughs at him and mocks him until he runs away. Ethan goes home, kills his cat, and then leaves his overbearing mother. He dresses all in black, and goes to Korman’s house. Korman is outside, doing all he possibly can to prove even further that he is a caricature of a douchebag and we Should Not Like Him. After an awkward chase scene, Ethan kills Korman with a shovel, dropping a black rose on the body, becoming the “black rose killer.”
            The second story happens in 1990, and focuses on a young mute girl (mute apparently due to something traumatic in her past, though this isn’t expanded on) named Sarah Weston (C.J. DiMarsico). She spends her time waltzing alone to music from her radio. A neighbor named Henry Wallace (John Studol) keeps watching her, prompting her parents to take her away on a vacation for a while. They leave her alone for a while, and Wallace breaks in and sexually assaults her. She fights back, but he keeps overpowering her. In the midst of the rape, he suddenly blacks out and appears to be hallucinating and recalling trauma from his own childhood. He wakes back up in the living room, with Sarah gone. He finds her in the bedroom, and approaches her, but she turns up her radio, he starts screaming and holding his head, and then he disappears. Later on, with the Weston family back at home, Sarah is seen dancing in her room, but the shadows and mirror show that she’s dancing with some sort of creature.
            The third story jumps forward nine years to 1999, and is about Jimmy (Mike Lane), who has begun attending a therapy group to help him deal with his relatively unspecified issues. He appears to mostly just be a shut-in. On his way home, he’s attacked by a wild animal (and by wild animal, I mean a husky that just kind of happily trotted behind him for about three seconds.) He’s bitten on the arm, and he slowly starts becoming convinced that he’s turning into a werewolf. He thinks the symptoms are obvious, though no one else sees the transformation. He kills his friendly neighbor who apparently had a thing for him, he kills a male prostitute, and then he kills a female dancer in a strip club. Here he’s apprehended, and sentenced to life in a mental hospital. But then he’s attacked by some apparently “real” werewolves, who want to kill him for bringing too much attention to them.
            The fourth story happens in 2000 and is about another serial killer (Ed Shelinsky) living in the tenement, who pretends to be a taxi driver to pick up women and then torture and murder them. We see him capture and kill a prostitute, and then go out “hunting” again. This time he picks up a girl (who I can’t remember being named, but I believe is being played by Danielle Russo.) She has him take her out to the place where Winston Korman, the horror director from before, used to film his movies. She has to give him directions, but she says she’ll just go in for a second to get money for the cab fare. When the taxi killer follows her in and attacks her, she says she “likes it rough” and attacks him back, saying it was obvious he wasn’t a real taxi driver because he didn’t know the place she wanted him to take her, and the two fight some more. Apparently they realize that they’re soul mates or something, and the two make out. Then we see that they’ve joined forces and are killing people together. Aww.
            The movie closes with the elderly Ethan and the owner discussing that they have seen the house do strange things to people. Ethan lays a black rose on a nearby bench. The owner (who by this point I was calling “goth Fabio”) confronts Simon (Chris Alo) the local pimp and drug dealer, telling him to stop hanging around and selling all he sells in front of the building. Simon pretty much blows him off before hallucinating madly about drug use and overdosing and what the fuck ever, while the owner stands nearby, leering at him, obviously the cause. The end.

This movie was pretty bad. One of the reviews on the case says that it “certainly shows an affinity for the genre” and we remarked that that seemed like a backhanded compliment. And that really feels like the nicest thing I can say about it, too. It’s clear that the makers really like horror films, and it seems like they probably even really enjoyed making this movie, but I certainly can’t say that it was very good. According to something else I found online, the director, Glen Baisley, was a sexploitation film director in the 60s and 70s, and then filmed porn for a while, before coming back to horror films, and I guess I wouldn’t have a hard time believing it. (And the “Walter Korman” film we get to see a brief snippet of during the first story is a perfect sexploitation/horror, to the point I wonder if it was a clip from something the director did in the past.)
My problems with the movie are varied. The acting was generally really substandard. Some actors were fine, but some side characters delivered their lines so badly it sounded like they were reading them off for the first time, and at other times it was obvious they couldn’t remember their lines correctly.
The stories themselves just weren’t that well-told in my opinion either. The first one, it sounds like all the dialogue between Ethan and his mother was lifted from Willard (which is a much better film.) They refuse to show the mother for a while, and I wondered if it was going for the Psycho-style twist, though apparently that was just a deliberate allusion. It reminded me more of Willard, anyway, down to the tone and pitch of the mother’s voice. Plus there were the weird dangling plot threads like Ethan's hallucination-girlfriend. The fourth story just bored me more than anything else; it was too bloodless to really be shocking the way it seemed to be aiming for, and it just managed to leave no real impression. The second and third had at least glimmers of interest for me. I want to know more about Sarah and the thing she was dancing with. Does she have strange powers? Is she allied to some kind of demon that killed her attacker? Is the creature a personification of the “monster” she killed? And the third story, while (probably deliberately) ridiculously silly, at least has a twist that could be interesting in a better film; the idea that someone who pretends to be some kind of monster is killed by the real thing.
As far as the anthology goes, judging from the title and the prologue/epilogue frame story, we’re apparently supposed to think that the building is somehow compelling people to become violent or is giving them delusions and apparently occasionally psychic powers. But without the occasional exterior shots of the tenement house, there’s nothing that tells me that these people supposedly live in the same building; none of them meet each other, there aren’t any other ties between the characters or stories (aside from Gordon Korman being mentioned in two stories, and Ethan being a character in one story and the frame,) there aren’t any other clues to the setting. There’s also never any reason given for why the building would have this effect on people. It really comes off as just being the most tenuous possible way to connect four ideas that couldn’t quite be films on their own. And despite all the stories being relatively short, averaging in the 20-30 minute range each, the film drags.
The entire time we’re skipping around from the 80s onward never felt convincing to me either – there was never anything that made me believe we’d changed time periods. Hairstyles, clothing, technology, etc. all remained so constant that it was hard to feel that this was somewhere in the past, or that years were passing between the stories. And Ethan, supposedly our “tie” between the past and the present of the building, appears to have aged about fifty years since 1980, so either their math is bad, or the frame story is set in the future.
The effects are nothing great. Fights don’t look at all convincing, with it often being incredibly obvious that there’s no force behind any of the blows. The movie doesn’t overly rely on gore effects and the like, which to me is a point in its favor, since the blood effects they have aren’t that good. Some of the scenes ended up prompting laughter when it wasn’t intentionally funny.
Pretty much everything from the acting to the effects to the scenarios just feel completely unconvincing. And allegedly this is part one of a trilogy… I’m not sure how to justify continuing this through two more films.