Monday, October 27, 2014


How do I love thee, Herbert West? Let me count the ways. I love that you look and act like the sick, twisted, hilarious lovechild of Norman Bates and Ashley J. Williams. You're brilliant, you're creepy, you're slightly campy and, to me, you are the perfect make-believe horror movie boyfriend. I love your drive and focus, the way that you pull out all the stops in order to achieve your goal of bringing the dead back to life. There's a purity to your pursuit; you're not seeking fame or fortune, you aren't trying to resurrect a lost love, it's not personal for you, you just care about scientific advancement. I admire the single-mindedness of your obsession.

You were birthed from the brain of H.P. Lovecraft back in the 1920s but you seem right at home in the mid-80s setting of Stuart Gordon's enthusiastically, unapologetically gruesome Re-Animator. You're a synth-pop, post-punk Victor Frankenstein. Your roomate, Dan Cain, is arguably the fella the audience is supposed to be rooting for but, make no mistake, my love, you're the one I'm invested in, you're the one running the show and you're the main reason that I enjoy revisiting this movie. Your antics always make my toes curl. 

It's not that I don't appreciate the crazy black humor, the lurid subplot involving Megan and Dr. Hill's re-animated head and the aforementioned boatloads of gore. I love all that stuff. In fact, Re-Animator is about as close to perfect as a horror film can get. But you, Herbert West, are the mad, marvelous glue that binds the whole bloody, sordid affair together. And that tiny flash of humanity you exhibit at the end of the film? Nice touch, my pet. Just when I think I have you pegged you surprise me. You're a brilliant character and you're played, brilliantly, by the insanely talented Jeffrey Combs and you, and this movie you inhabit, absolutely rock my world. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The House of the Devil

College student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) answers a flyer posted outside her dorm room inquiring after a babysitter. The terms seem simple, easy money for the cash-strapped coed, but they are slightly askew, enough at least to give Sam's best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) pause. Turns out the family in question doesn't need Sam to watch a kid, they want her to watch an elderly shut-in mother. Don't worry, Tom Noonan's dutiful son assures Samantha, his mother will most likely sleep throughout the evening. Again, easy money. And, since she was given such short notice, she'll be getting paid double. How on earth could she refuse?

Megan drives Samantha out to her babysitting gig, which is, frankly, out in the middle of nowhere. The house is lovely but isolated and Megan is dubious and concerned for her friend's safety, though Sam is quick to dismiss her friend's concerns. It's worth noting that there's a lunar eclipse occurring on the night of this gig, which may or may not play into the evening's events. 

The House of the Devil was made in 2009 but it relies, heavily, on the 80s aesthetic that it's referencing and the "Satanic Panic" phenomenon that was so prevalent during that decade. It makes me feel old to refer to a movie set in the 80s as a period film but The House of the Devil is very much a period homage to that era. The high waisted acid washed jeans! The feathered hair! The Walkmans! It all seems seems like yesterday to this Gen-X kid but it was decades ago. How strange. The House of the Devil probably wouldn't work as well for me if it didn't rely on nostalgia, specifically a nostalgia I'm hard wired to connect with on a personal level. A nostalgia that places it cozily before the self-aware teens of Wes Craven's Scream, who know they're in a horror movie and act accordingly. Poor sweet Samantha takes everything at face value. 

The House of the Devil is, quite frankly, awesome. Mostly because it sets out to do one specific thing and it does it beautifully. It's exploitive, I guess, to a degree, and unapologetic. There are no rosy resolutions here. It's just one sweet, decent girl trying her darnedest to survive one harrowing night, which is the ideal set-up for fun, horrible greatness. It's compelling and nihilistic but also self-referential and lots of fun. This one definitely delivers.


"He won't let go. He's always in my head. It's like he's haunting me."

After her husband dies in a car accident Audrey (Anna Walton), consumed by her grief, tries to kill herself. Her attempt on her own life is thwarted by her family but despite their concerns Audrey decides to retreat to the Welsh countryside, where she rents a cottage in a small village and shuts herself away from the world with her violin, determined to rebuild her life and focus on her musical career. She befriends an older couple in the village, Theresa (Tanya Myers) and Dr. Zellaby (Nick Brimble), who inform the young woman that the cottage she's staying in belonged to a man named Douglas (Tom Wisdom), who killed himself thirty years earlier after the love of his life left him. 

It's no time at all before Audrey is hearing noises coming from a locked, upstairs junk room and seeing mysterious lights shining in the windows. Is she being haunted by the cabin's former tenant, or is her mind deceiving her owing to her grief and the very strong antidepressants she's been prescribed? I like that Soulmate gives a plausible reason for Audrey hanging around the house once she begins to suspect that it's haunted; the young widow, who has still not come to terms with the death of her spouse, initially believes (hopes) that the spirit in the home is her husband's. Plus, I think the fact that she has a mystery of sorts to solve lifts Audrey out of her funk. It's heartening to see the young woman come back to life over the course of the film. Audrey was a heroine that I liked from the outset, partly because Anna Walton is absolutely captivating to watch. She's so lovely, such a unique, slinky, feline-like quality to her appearance, but she also projects the nuances of a woman who is feeling broken and incredibly fragile in the face of a horrible tragedy. Despite this, there's a steely resolve to the character that's evident from early on and only becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses.

Everything else about Soulmate, the locations, the interiors of the fine country homes, even the posh little dog that accompanies Dr. Zellaby on his walks, is as beautiful to behold as its leading lady. The prettiness of the whole thing came close to distracting me from the actual story but, fortunately, the movie went in interesting, unexpected directions and easily held my interest throughout. Soulmate is more a haunting, supernatural character study and a meditation on the nature of loss and grieving than an outright frightfest. And it is definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Quotable Quotes: Marty - The Cabin in the Woods

"People in this town drive in a very counter-intuitive manner."

"Society needs to crumble, we're all just too chickenshit to let it."

"I don't think it knows about money; I think it's barter gas."

"Well, good luck with your business sir. I know the railroad's coming through here any day now, that's gonna be big. Streets paved with actual street."

"It was pioneer days. People had to make their own interrogation rooms."

"I dare you to make out with that moose over there."

"Guys I'm not sure it's awesome to be down here."

"Maybe we should go back upstairs. I dare you all to go upstairs."

"Ok, I'm drawing a line in the fucking sand here, do NOT read the Latin."

"This is so classy."

"Can we not talk about people in pieces anymore tonight?"

"I have a theory about all of this . . ."

"You're not seeing what you don't wanna see . . . puppeteers . . . PopTarts? Did you say you have PopTarts?"

"We are not who we are . . . I'm gonna go read a book with pictures." 

"Nemo, man, you've gotta wake up. Your shit is topsy turvy."

"He's got a husband bulge."

"I thought there'd be stars . . . we are abandoned."

"Oh my God. I'm on a reality TV show. My parents are gonna think I'm such a burnout."

"Yeah, I kinda dismembered that guy with a trowel . . . what have you been up to?"

"C'mon! Fuckin' Zombie Arm!"

"Good work, Zombie Arm."

"Yeah, Dana, you feelin' strong?"

"I'm sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world."

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that I could watch over and over again. It's currently my default go-to title. It's the one I fire up when I can't decide what I'm in the food for, the one I turn to when I just want to enjoy myself by watching a quality film. It's the cinematic equivalent of a juicy, perfectly cooked cheeseburger and a bottle of Maker's Mark, or a great night out with very dear friends. It is satire and social commentary but, more than that, it's an affectionate homage to the horror and slasher genre that it parodies. 

The first two acts of The Cabin in the Woods play out like any other film in this particular sub genre of horror might - five coeds head out to a rustic, secluded vacation spot for a weekend getaway, mayhem ensues - but there is a secondary side plot running parallel to the first one. One that involves spies, surveillance devices and men in lab coats watching the kids, from an undisclosed location, on monitors and tweaking their environment in order to achieve certain results. Are our unsuspecting heroes the unwitting guinea pigs in some nefarious scientific study? Are they, as stoner Marty (an endearing Fran Kranz) muses, on a reality television show? Or is it something else entirely? The two strands of the story converge in the film's final third, when all the answers are revealed and all hell breaks loose in gleeful, gory, self-aware fashion. And it's a hoot every time I see it.

The Cabin in the Woods works well because it's smart and fun, with snappy, quotable dialogue and characters that still manage to feel real even though they're essentially playing assigned, archetypal horror victim roles. It's a critique, not only of the horror genre but also the moviegoers who flock to these kinds of films, but there's no malice or finger-wagging in the movie's criticism. It's made by people who obviously love these kinds of flicks themselves and know them well enough to reference them, meticulously, throughout the story. For a genre that can sometimes be derivative this film tries and succeeds in breaking new ground.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I absolutely adored last year's The Conjuring and, while I figured the prequel, Annabelle, would be hard pressed to live up to the awesomeness of the previous movie I was still very excited to see it. And while I don't think this new film is quite as engaging or frightening as its predecessor it is entertaining and well made and it offers plenty of impressively creepy moments that had me covering my face and peeking at the screen through my fingers. 

Annabelle was a footnote in The Conjuring; she was a doll that the paranormal experts, the Warrens, needed to contain because she was possessed by an evil entity and posed a terrible threat to anyone who came in contact with her. The movie Annabelle is the deadly doll's origin story. We learn that she was purchased by John Gordon (Ward Horton) as a gift for his very pregnant wife Mia (Annabelle Wallace). Mia is an avid collector of rare, antique dolls and this is the one she's been searching for for ages. A crazed couple who belong to a satanic cult break into the home of the Gordon's neighbors one night; the woman, Annabelle, is the couple's estranged daughter. After they murder her parents Annabelle and her boyfriend proceed to the Gordon's home where the man stabs Mia in the stomach (both mother and unborn child survive the attack), fights with John and is ultimately shot by the police when they arrive on the scene. Before she can be taken into custody Annabelle kills herself. She dies holding Mia's antique doll in her arms. As a result the doll becomes possessed by, if I understood this correctly, both Annabelle's damned spirit and the demonic force that Annabelle and her boyfriend were trying to summon. Like any self-respecting sinister force the demon attaches itself to the Gordons, determined to claim their infant daughter Leah's soul.

Like The Conjuring Annabelle wears its horror movie references on its sleeve. The most obvious inspiration is Rosemary's Baby. The earlier film's influence can definitely be felt during the second half of the this movie, after Mia, John and Leah have moved out of their suburban home and into a chic apartment building in the city, in both the locations and the relationships between the characters. Most of the demonic activity occurs when John, a doctor, is at the hospital, so when Mia shares her concerns with her husband he chalks them up to Mia being exhausted, or a result of the post traumatic stress she suffered after their occultist attack. John and Mia's priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola) is more empathetic but Mia's best ally is Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), an intuitive, compassionate bookstore owner, who arms the young mother with an arsenal of books to help her understand her evil adversary and, hopefully, give her the answer for how to defeat it. 

There are some fantastically creepy moments in this movie. The scene when Mia first spies Annabelle's ghost in Leah's nursery is startling and the anxiety-inducing slow dread of the basement storage scene, when Mia first sees the demon that wishes to consume her daughter's soul, is masterfully executed. The visual effects are well done and effective and the sound effects are sublime. It took me a while to warm to Mia but once the bad vibes kicked in and she started to get wise to what was actually happening I realized I liked her quite a bit. And I adored Alfre Woodard, whose smart, sensitive performance made Evelyn a character I could easily care about. The ending of the movie was a bit pat and I felt let down by it but my disappointment did not diminish my enjoyment of the movie outright. I think Annabelle's strengths outweigh its weaknesses and it definitely provides plenty of frightening fun.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Frighteners

Before he tackled the Lord of the Rings trilogy, just after he'd given us the brilliant, fantasy-laced matricide thriller Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson directed a delightful, campy creep-fest called The Frighteners. It features some horror cinema heavyweights (Dee Wallace and the Re-Animator himself, Jeffrey Combs), it's scored by Danny Elfman and it stars Michael J. Fox, an actor that I sometimes forget was an integral and much beloved part of my childhood thanks to Back to the Future and Family Ties. The special effects, which look a tad clunky by today's standards, were ambitious and groundbreaking back in 1996 and are still very impressive. The characters are quirky and charming. It's got that old fashioned, B movie at the drive-in feel to it, a sweet, whimsical quality that definitely establishes it as a horror comedy with an emphasis on the comedy. But what it lacks in scares it makes up for in sheer weirdness.

Fox plays Frank Bannister, a widower who loses his wife after a car accident but gains the ability to communicate with the spirit world. Frank befriends three ghosts who help him stage hauntings throughout his community; his spectral associates go into an unsuspecting home, move things around, cause mayhem and then leave Frank's business card behind so that the terrified marks will hire Frank to exorcise the entities and cleanse their house. But when the ghost of serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey) decides to up his body count by continuing the murder spree he began before his death Frank must step up and use his powers to try and put a stop to the otherworldly rampage.

The Frighteners is the cinematic equivalent of the funhouse at the fair. Walls and floors turn to putty as spectral apparitions push against them. Frank's ghostly pals continually drip ectoplasm and whenever Frank sets foot inside the cemetery all the spirits are on full display, hovering over their graves (and being presided over by R. Lee Ermey, who's basically playing the same character he did in Full Metal Jacket but in ghost form). The performances are as madcap and fun as the effects. Dee Wallace brings a raucous intensity to the role of Patricia Ann Bradley, lover and accomplice to Busey's Bartlett, and Jeffrey Combs just about steals the show as Milton Dammers, the sniveling, simpering, deeply troubled FBI agent who comes to town to investigate the recent rash of murders. 

In the midst of all this campy fun there's Michael J. Fox, whose performance as Frank brings enough understated depth to The Frighteners to keep the whole thing from devolving into full-blown parody. Frank's just the sort of scruffy, unlikely hero that I love to root for and Fox is delightful in the role. This really is an odd, nifty little flick and I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fright Night

How fun is the original Fright Night? What a terrific love letter to campy, late-night creature-feature cinema. You can practically feel the warmth and affection radiating off of this movie, which is smart, sexy, funny and gleefully disgusting. I saw Craig Gillespie's remake back in 2011 (in large part because I wanted to see David Tennant on the big screen) and it's a perfectly decent movie but it takes itself too seriously. I much prefer the humor and charm of Tom Holland's original version.

When high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) realizes his charming new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire he tries, in vain, to warn the people closest to him of the danger. Charley's mother (Dorothy Fielding), preoccupied with work, doesn't have time to indulge her son's fantastical imaginings; his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and his friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) both think Charley has lost his mind. The desperate young man finally reaches out to the one person he thinks will believe and help him: Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), legendary horror film star and host of Charley's favorite show, "Fright Night," a serialized showcase of B movies. It never occurs to Charley that Peter might not be as skilled at vanquishing the undead as his cinematic counterpart. In Charley's mind Peter Vincent is a fearless vampire slayer, not a burned-out, past his prime actor who's cash-strapped and desperate for work.

Like many of my favorite horror films, Fright Night holds up well, in large part, because its characters are memorable and appealing. There's an every-boy quality to William Ragsdale's Charley that makes him relatable and a bravery, along with an inherent sense of decency, that makes him admirable. The same could be said for Amanda Bearse, who's so fresh-faced, sweet and sassy that it's easy to see why Charley is crazy about her. Chris Sarandon is equal parts charming and oily as vampire-next-door Jerry and Roddy McDowall is absolute perfection as Peter Vincent. Like Charley, there's a sense of decency at the core of McDowall's character; it's heartening to see these two underdogs find their inner reserves of bravery and join forces to protect their community and the people they care about. And speaking of underdogs I have a particular soft spot for Charley's pal Evil Ed, a character who starts out as obnoxious (but effectively amusing) comic relief and becomes something much more unforgettable and tragic by the end of the movie. Stephen Geoffreys is adept at projecting Ed's false sense of bravado as well as his vulnerability. 

Another thing I love about this movie is the variety in the vampire death scenes. Just like The Lost Boys two years later, no two vampires go the same way in Fright Night. The effects during the blood-sucking bloodbath at the end of this movie are gory, goofy and wonderful. Vampires transform into wolves, bats and one of them, after being staked dissolves into a pile of green goo and, inexplicably, sand. Like everything else about Fright Night the ick factor is equal parts horror and humor. But the hijinks never come at the expense of the characters, who are the heart of this great movie.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Evil Dead

I enjoy all of the Evil Dead titles but Sami Raimi's original flick, about five college students vacationing at a cabin in the woods who unwittingly unleash a bunch of demons and get themselves possessed one by one, remains my favorite. It's frightening and it's fun. There's a gleeful, manic energy that permeates Raimi's debut feature and his filmmaking choices are incredibly creative and appropriate. The Evil Dead also introduced horror movie lovers to the brilliant Bruce Campbell and, even though it's the sequel that cemented Campbell's cult status, I have a soft spot for the more traditional "Final Girl" performance Campbell gives in this first film. And the fact that The Evil Dead was shot on location in my own back yard, in Morristown, is a tremendous source of pride for me as an East Tennessean.

There's very little that needs to be said about the plot of The Evil Dead; it's straight-forward and basic and, given all the imitators over the years, it's more or less become horror cliche at this point. Five Michigan State University students, siblings Ash and Cheryl Williams, Ash's girlfriend Linda, his friend Scotty and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly, venture into the remote backwoods of Tennessee for a little R&R at a rustic, isolated cabin. The friends discover a Book of the Dead in the cabin's basement, along with audio recordings of spells and incantations that, when played (unbeknownst to them), release the demonic forces within the forest. Once the recordings are played and the demons unleashed Cheryl, Shelly, Linda and Scotty become possessed one after the other by the evil entities, leaving Ash to fend them off and fight to survive the night with his life, and his soul, intact.

For a movie made thirty one years ago The Evil Dead holds up incredibly well. There's a creepy, unnerving quality to the location which is heightened by the camerawork, particularly the eerie tracking shots that race through the forest and are meant to represent to the demons' point of view. Shot for peanuts, the low-budget movie has a crafty, homemade quality that enhances both its horrifying nature and its charm. It's the etsy of the horror genre. Even the more outlandish and unbelievable effects towards the end of the movie, the stuff that looks like outtakes from an 80s-era Peter Gabriel video, still hold up because they are so wonderfully odd. And Bruce Campbell is truly delightful and lovable as Ash, the movie's very reluctant hero. His reaction shots throughout the story are hilarious. He seems less afraid and more repulsed and exasperated by each terrifying turn of events. But there's genuine warmth and affection in Campbell's performance as well, which keeps the character from backsliding into snarky, ironic parody. 

The small-scale, intimate nature of The Evil Dead makes the terror feel more real and immediate. It also makes this movie endlessly endearing. This one's a real gem.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Carrie (2013)

I liked the new version of Carrie so much more than I thought I would. I remember being cautiously excited when Julianne Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz were cast but then disheartened when the lukewarm reviews started popping up. That's why I held off on seeing it until today and why I went into it with very low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised when this remake turned out to be warmer, smarter and more sensitive than I was expecting it to be.

I'm not sure if this version is more faithful to King's story than Brian De Palma's version, mostly because it's been such a long time since I've read the novel, but I know that both movies, in terms of actual plot, are very similar. There's something about this remake that seems perfunctory, like it's going through the motions. I think it lacks the charm of De Palma's version but the filmmaking is decent, if not distinctive, and the characterizations are absolutely wonderful. Every major player in this new Carrie has a chance to share his or her point of view. I felt like I understood everyone's motivations, even Chris's, better in this version. 

I also felt like Carrie and her mother were more savvy, less like country bumpkins, in this remake. There's a relatableness, with the mother in particular, that I loved. And Carrie's relationship with her mother is warmer. Her mother actually seems, in her own way, to love her daughter, which didn't entirely come across in De Palma's film. Sue and Tommy are also utterly charming. I like that they get to be sexier, that we actually see more of the physical aspect of their relationship, instead of just seeing them as squeaky-clean do-gooders. I also love that Sue's plan grows out of a genuine spark she sees between Carrie and Tommy in class. My biggest problem with the original movie version was the characterization of Sue, which felt very half-baked. It's easier to understand her motivations in this version, just like it's easier to empathize (up to a point) with Chris, who seems less vindictive and mostly just thoughtless, bratty and impossibly immature in this version of the story.

I really liked the depth of the characterizations in this new Carrie. And the casting was outstanding (Judy Greer, as the gym teacher, does some especially impressive work). But, still, there's something compulsory about the whole thing. There's not much, in terms of filmmaking, that sets this apart from De Palma's very memorable adaptation. Still, it's worth watching. And I'm glad that I checked it out.


Candyman probably makes the cut for my list of desert island titles. It's another of those movies that I can watch over and over again and always enjoy. I've been reluctant to write about it in the past because I really want to do it justice. And whenever I profess my love for it to people who've never seen it they usually roll their eyes and try to keep from laughing in my face. I think Candyman, which spawned two sequels, is often written off by those who haven't watched it as a mindless supernatural slasher flick; a popcorn thriller with very little to offer aside from jump scares and gore. The TV spots I remember for it certainly played up those aspects of the story but there is so much more to Candyman than that. 

Candyman is based on "The Forbidden," a short story by the brilliant Clive Barker, and while the movie remains more or less faithful to its source material director Bernard Rose opted to make some crucial changes for his cinematic adaptation: he moved the setting from Barker's native England to the United States and he made the Candyman into a black character. By changing the location of the story from an English council estate to a Chicago housing project, the infamous Cabrini Green, and by changing the color of his monster's skin Rose was able to insert another layer of meaning into his movie. Candyman deals with the class distinctions that "The Forbidden" addressed but it also explores the racially charged tension that exists between its characters.

Candyman is the story of a graduate student, Helen Lyle (the awesome Virginia Madsen), who is researching local urban folklore for her thesis. Her studies lead her to the story of Candyman, a mondern-day hook-handed monster who is said to haunt Cabrini Green. The crimes that are committed there are attributed to the "Hook Man," who has attained a revered status as both a deity and a fearsome boogeyman within the community; Candyman has become a convenient scapegoat for pimps, drug dealers and all other manner of troublemakers in the housing projects. Helen feels like she's hit a goldmine when she begins investigating the story but she never, for an instant, actually believes it. Her doubt eventually brings her face-to-face with the real Candyman (an excellent Tony Todd), who begins to set her up for his heinous crimes as punishment for her lack of faith.

The juxtaposition between real and imagined horror in Candyman is fascinating. Viewers who aren't ordinarily frightened by tales of the supernatural can still be incredibly concerned for Helen as she traipses around Cabrini Green, gathering information about the crimes that have been committed there and inadvertently setting herself up as a threat, a problem to be dealt with, for the criminals. And it's easy to care about what happens to Helen since she's played by the incredibly talented and heart-stoppingly beautiful Virginia Madsen. Helen's ambition and enthusiasm for her work, her drive to make a name for herself in the world of academia, made her a character I cared about and really rooted for because she's so smart, so capable and so passionate. She's one of the most dynamic horror geroines around (and one of my personal favorites).

Tony Todd is equally compelling as the Candyman, who must surely be one of the most handsome and charming monsters in horror history. In Rose's adaptation the character is given a tragic back story. In life Candyman, the educated son of a former slave, was a talented, celebrated artist who was cruelly mutilated and murdered by an angry lynch mob after falling in love with (and impregnating) a young white woman whose portrait he'd been commissioned to paint. His heartbreaking history doesn't make him any less terrifying but it certainly makes his motivations at least somewhat understandable. It helps that Todd's menacing performance is laced with nobility and a deep sadness. It also helps that he and Madsen have dynamite chemistry. Despite the fact that he's hellbent on destroying her life there is something about Helen that seems to touch whatever remnant of Candyman's soul remains. According to the filmmakers and the actors Madsen was placed under hypnosis before filming her scenes with Todd and there's a dreamy, seductive quality about all of Helen's encounters with her adversary. I find theses moments to be utterly irresistible. 

Candyman also features fantastic supporting players who make the secondary characters memorable in their own right. Kasi Lemmons is very appealing as Helen's close friend and colleague Bernadette, Vanessa Williams is a powerhouse in the role of Anne-Marie, a young mother who is struggling to protect her baby boy and create a decent life for him in a challenging environment, and DeJuan Guy is fantastic as Jake, a smart, straight-talking little boy that who befriends Helen and reluctantly agrees to help her research the Candyman. All of these characters feel real to me, as do the urban legends swirling around Cabrini Green. It's easy for me to be drawn into the world of this movie because it's so fully realized. And I have to give kudos to composer Philip Glass for crafting a hauntingly beautiful musical score that heightens the eerily romantic tone of the film.

Candyman is pulpy enough that it probably does qualify, technically, as a slasher film. But it's certainly more thought-provoking, sensitive and intelligent than many of the offerings that that genre of movie-making is known to produce. There's a lot of beauty under its beastly exterior. That's what sets it apart and what keeps me coming back to revisit it over and over again. I love this movie so much.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gone Girl

I'm taking a quick break from my month-long celebration of all things Halloween and horror to rave about the movie that everybody else is raving about. 

I spent the better part of Gone Girl, David Fincher's exquisite adaptation of Gillian Flynn's exceptionally entertaining thriller, in a dizzying state of euphoria, a giant grin plastered across my face. I'd heard that Fincher and company more than did justice to Flynn's source material and my expectations were ridiculously high but the movie still managed to exceed them. There's not a single misstep in this production. The filmmaking is impeccable. The screenplay, adapted by the author herself, is taut and sharp. The score (oh my God, so gorgeous), by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is nervy and jarring and heightens the considerable tension in the film's most tense scenes. Everyone brought their A game to this one. And they absolutely knocked it out. This movie is a remarkable gift. 

Gone Girl's greatest strength, however, is its actors. While I was reading Flynn's novel I certainly had a type in mind for Nick Dunne, the handsome, affable man who may or may not have murdered his wife, Amy, but I never really pictured a particular actor in the role. When Ben Affleck was cast as Nick I was thrilled. I like Affleck and I think he's a fine director; I've never been bowled over by his work in front of the camera but I knew he could deliver the goods as Nick. And, oh boy, did he ever. Affleck was born to play this role. His easy charm is undercut by something that feels a little off, a little disingenuous. Is he hiding something or does he just appear to be hiding something because his family and the media are scrutinizing his every move? 

I first saw Rosamund Pike in Joe Wright's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I thought she was absolutely luminous. She radiated warmth and sweetness every time she was onscreen. She was just so likable and appealing. Unlike Nick, I did have an actress in mind for Amy when I read Gone Girl: Gwyneth Paltrow. But Gwyneth Paltrow from ten or fifteen years ago. So when Pike was announced, again, I thought she was an excellent choice. Like Paltrow, Pike can play the perfect, polished princess. The golden girl. But her acting choices seem subtler and gentler. She makes you fall in love with her and that is absolutely essential during the movie's opening act. But what Pike is required to do for this role goes way beyond that. I couldn't help but be reminded of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive while I watched Pike slip with ease from one persona into another. She's essentially playing four or five different characters and she is equally convincing as all of them. She owns this movie and she took my breath away.

The supporting players are equally strong. Carrie Coon (a scene-stealer in her own right on the first season of HBO's The Leftovers) is gritty and sassy and wonderful as Nick's twin sister Margo. Tyler Perry is a hoot as Tanner Bolt, the high profile criminal defense attorney Nick hires, and his one-liners had me cracking up. And Neil Patrick Harris is terrifically pathetic and creepy as Desi Collings, a former flame of Amy's who still carries a torch for his unrequited love. Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit, the law enforcement duo assigned to Amy's case, round out the principal cast and are both very watchable, entertaining and appealing.

Even though I knew where Gone Girl was going the craftsmanship of the story was so flawless that I got swept up all over again. It wasn't that I forgot what was going to happen so much as I couldn't wait to see how I would react to it unfolding on the big screen. It's a dark, twisted story in book form and in movie form it's even crazier, hotter and more darkly hilarious and thrilling than I ever could have imagined. Bravo Fincher and company: That's definitely the way to do it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Double Feature: Cannibalism in Polite Society

We Are What We Are, a melancholy tale about an isolated family with some very taboo religious practices, is a beautifully crafted movie that features fine, sensitive performances. I found it to be an uncommonly thoughtful horror film, one that I look forward to revisiting, as I imagine its subtleties will hold up well and offer new insights upon repeat viewings.

The story of the Parker family, father Frank (Bill Sage), sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and baby brother Rory (Jack Gore), begins with the sudden death of their matriarch, Emma (Kassie DePaiva, excellent in a very brief role). While the family works through their grief Frank remains adamant that they continue to adhere to their particular, peculiar religious customs. That means observing periods of fasting as well as slaughtering and eating human victims. With their mother dead Iris and Rose are expected to take on additional responsibilities when it comes to the practice (namely, they must kill and dress what their father catches). This, understandably, causes the girls to grow increasingly conflicted over their family's cannibalistic tendencies. 

Iris and Rose's emotional turmoil provides most of the delicious tension in We Are What We Are. As they begin to question their family's actions their animosity towards their father grows. They also make efforts to connect to other members of their community. Are the girls capable of turning their backs on their upbringing, the only way of life that they have ever known, and making their way in the world on their own terms? And, if so, what will those terms be?  

The French film Trouble Every Day, directed by Claire Denis and featuring the impossibly awesome Béatrice Dalle, approaches the subject of cannibalism from, pretty much, as different a perspective as a movie-goer could hope to find. We Are What We Are is grounded in faith and tradition while Trouble Every Day is focused on pure animal lust. Dalle plays Coré, a woman who compulsively seduces men and cannibalizes them. Coré's husband Léo (Alex Descas) covers up his wife's crimes but also attempts to keep her out of trouble by imprisoning her in their home. 

The primary focus of Trouble Every Day, though, is a newly-married American man, Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo), who has come to Paris on honeymoon with his bride, June (Tricia Vessey) but is also there to find Léo, a doctor who has done extensive research on the human libido. Shane suffers from the same condition as Coré and he hopes that Léo will be able to offer him medical assistance before his illness causes him to harm his lovely young wife. 

Claire Denis is a fine filmmaker and Trouble Every Day is as languorously gorgeous as anything else she's made. The overall tone of the movie is chill and dreamy, which makes the cannibalism scenes, when they do occur, all the more jarring and horrific. While I was very intrigued by the movie's premise and I typically adore a quiet, slow-burn cinematic experience I felt like Trouble Every Day was a little half baked. It's like two thirds of a great movie. But it's still worth watching because it's great to look at and because Béatrice Dalle is awesome and oh so watchable. Having seen her in Inside and now this I'm officially a fangirl. She's tremendous.

Cannibalism fascinates me and stories that focus on cannibalistic individuals who live within societies that are considered civilized are especially interesting to me. Both We Are What We Are and Trouble Every Day explore this storytelling terrain in fairly interesting, intelligent ways.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Cannibal Holocaust

So, here's the thing about me and horror movies (and maybe it's like this for other people, too, but I wouldn't presume to speak to anybody else's relationship with the genre): I watch a lot of horror movies. So many that I've gotten to the point where I kind of want to up the ante and test myself with more challenging material. At the same time, I still think of myself as that scared fourth grader who was traumatized by the Stephen Gammell illustrations in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I'd say I have a pretty high threshold for movie gore at this point but that doesn't stop me from pausing to think "Can I really handle this?" when I come across especially celebrated and infamous horror titles.

Cannibal Holocaust is, most likely, not a movie I'd have sought out for myself. I've read plenty about it and I was certainly a bit curious but that's as far as it went. It wasn't so much the gore factor that made me stop short but the fact that actual animals were killed for the movie. I've seen animal killings in movies before but the ones in Cannibal Holocaust sounded particularly callous and unsavory. So when I happened across the movie during a routine check for horror titles on Hulu Plus I kind of freaked out. It was easy enough to steer clear of a movie that was difficult to obtain through the usual rental channels but now here I was in my living room with Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most legendary Video Nasties around, a mere click away. I didn't want to see it. I didn't think I could possibly stand to see it. But I couldn't resist. So I watched it. And I really liked it.

I guess it never really occurred to me that Cannibal Holocaust might have something more to offer than shocking scenes of bloody violence. The story of a group of documentary filmmakers who go missing, while attempting to film footage of indigenous cannibal tribes, in the Amazonian Rainforest and the parallel story of both the search party that recovers the doomed crew's footage and the network executives who wish to air the material makes for a pretty engaging story. Having mistakenly assumed before I watched that the movie was nothing but gore for gore's sake I was pleased that there was a basic message, that the "civilized" members of the film crew are as savage, if not more so, than the tribes they're documenting, in the midst of all the carnage. And while the animal killings were definitely unpleasant they were more or less comparable to what I'd seen in other movies and nowhere near as sadistic as I'd imagined they would be. The special effects, on the other hand, delivered just like I'd hoped they would. It's easy to see why director Ruggero Deodato faced accusations that he'd created a snuff film. I really do think practical gore is an awesome art form and the effects in Cannibal Holocaust are incredibly impressive.

It's certainly not for everyone (but, then, what is?) but I'm glad Hulu made this title available and I'm glad that I watched it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


It's Christmas Eve and Sarah (Alysson Paradis), recently widowed and very pregnant, is home alone. A woman (Béatrice Dalle) comes to her door demanding to be let inside. Sarah turns the stranger away and calls the police, who find no trace of the mystery woman on the premises. After assuring the soon-to-be mother that everything is fine and, promising to send a patrol car by to check on her later, they leave. As you can probably guess, everything is not fine. The rest of the movie Inside, set in this one location over the course of this single Christmas Eve night, is a battle of wills between Sarah, trying desperately to protect herself and her unborn child, and the woman, determined at all costs to take the baby for herself.

I watched Inside as a double feature with Martyrs because they are both considered fine examples of the new French wave of extreme horror. Like MartyrsInside is relentlessly brutal. It is one of the bloodiest movies I've ever seen (seriously, there is so much blood in this film). But Martyrs is very much grounded in reality and the tone, throughout, is deathly serious and sober; Inside, by comparison, is a bit surreal and dreamy, unfolding more like a sick, twisted fairy tale for strong-stomached adults. There's an almost supernaturally indestructible quality about Dalle's antagonist, who is able to dispatch police officers, and other well intentioned people who happen to stop by Sarah's house to offer the young mother assistance, with minimal effort. Sarah and the woman could very easily be modern day versions of Rapunzel and Dame Gothel, or Snow White and the Queen. There's also a slight undercurrent of pitch-black humor running through Inside, especially evident during some of the death scenes (which come close to straining credulity with their over-the-top presentation) that manages to keep the horror from feeling entirely real. 

Maybe it's because I was still reeling from Martyrs when I saw it but I found Inside to be highly entertaining. That's not to say that it's devoid of genuinely harrowing moments; it's been a few weeks since I've watched but the final scenes, which I thought were heartbreaking, have really stayed with me. I'm not a mother and I've never really wanted children of my own but I had no trouble empathizing with Sarah as she fought to keep her baby safe. Sarah starts out as a woman numb with grief, still reeling from the loss of her husband, and becomes, by the movie's end, a force to be reckoned with, both resourceful and resilient. And Béatrice Dalle is wickedly compelling as the woman. Clad all in black, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes, she's a cruelly determined but incredibly chic and seductive angel of death. Paradis and Dalle give this pulpy material their all and the result is a very grim, very fine film indeed.

Friday, October 3, 2014


Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is one of those horror movies that I researched and obsessed over extensively long before I actually watched it. After reading, from multiple sources, about how extreme and brutal it was I figured I probably couldn't handle it so I sought out a plot summary and read it. But that only made me want to watch it more. When I happened across it as a streaming rental during a horror movie search a few weeks back I decided I might as well give it a shot. I was excited but also a bit frightened. My fears were not assuaged when my friend April, a serious horror movie enthusiast, confided that Martyrs was a movie that she could never revisit because it upset her so much. What in the hell, I wondered, was I getting myself into?

Turns out I was getting myself into an entirely punishing but totally worthwhile experience. The movie opens with a young kidnap victim, Lucie, escaping her tormentors. She is battered and bloody and has suffered horrific physical abuse. Lucie, deeply traumatized by her experience, is placed in an orphanage where she distances herself from everyone until another young girl, Anna, is able to connect with her. Anna is incredibly sensitive and compassionate and her devotion to the troubled Lucie is absolute. Despite efforts by the local authorities Lucie's kidnappers are never brought to justice. The movie jumps ahead fifteen years to Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), still unable to overcome her traumatic past and desperate to find and punish the people who tortured her, and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), still entirely devoted and doing her best to help her friend find the closure and solace she so desires.

As many people have pointed out Martyrs is a movie that starts out as one thing, a sort of standard (albeit exceptionally gruesome and bloody) revenge thriller, and then, halfway through, becomes something else. Of course I knew in advance what that "something else" was going to be because I'd read the plot summary but this is not a movie that needs to rely on shocking twists to be effective. Knowing what was coming didn't diminish my viewing experience. This movie is an endurance test from start to finish. It's absolutely relentless. I screamed and cried so many times during it that I was exhausted by the time it ended. But I didn't have that strong reaction simply because of the gruesome content. I responded to the movie the way that I did because I cared about the characters so much. 

I felt attached and emotionally connected to Lucie and Anna. Lucie's quest for justice drives her to commit heinous acts but there is still a sense of decency about her. Despite the cruelty she's endured and the cruelty she inflicts on others she fights to maintain both her sanity and her humanity. When it's revealed that she is also suffering from survivor's guilt, haunted by the memory that she could do nothing to help save another young woman who was also being held captive, I began to see Lucie's desire for revenge as a means to atone rather than a need to make her tormentors suffer as she had suffered. That made me love her even more. But the movie, at least in the later half, belongs to Anna. Selfless, brave, compassionate and loyal to a fault. The ways in which this young woman is made to suffer are mind-boggling. The way she endures that suffering, her seemingly endless reserve of inner strength, is even more mind-boggling. She is a truly remarkable horror heroine.

Because I loved Lucie and Anna so much I felt I owed it to them to keep watching even when I wanted, desperately, to look away. I felt like I had to go on this journey with them. I had to bear witness for them. It was an agonizing experience but, by the time the closing credits began to roll I felt something akin to catharsis crossed with transcendence. Laugier and his fearless leading ladies have created something truly memorable and powerful. This is a brutally beautiful movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Children of the Corn

Children of the Corn is one of those movies I always meant to get around to watching but was never quite in the mood to watch. The premise sounded promisingly creepy but the reviews I read were always tepid. So, last night, when my pal Bess suggested we watch it (to kick off our month-long celebration of Halloween and horror movies) I figured "Why not?" If it was as laughable as I expected it to be I could at least have a good time watching it with a friend. If it turned out to be better than I expected I could add a new title to my list of October viewing options. Turns out Children of the Corn succeeded on both counts. It is rather hilarious but also legitimately unsettling. 

The titular children in this story are the inhabitants of the town of Gatlin, Nebraska. In the opening scene of the movie we watch as they swifty slaughter all of the adults in their tiny, rural community. The movie jumps ahead three years and introduces us to Burt, a young physician, and his girlfriend Vicky, who are en route to Seattle, where Burt has accepted an internship. After an auto accident leaves them in need of assistance, the young couple seek out the nearest town hoping to find some help. They end up in Gatlin, where they are pursued by the fiendish children who intend to sacrifice them (crucifixion style, in the cornfields) to the god they call "He Who Walks Behind the Rows." 

Children of the Corn was adapted from a short story by Stephen King. I've only read a handful of King's novels and stories but I've seen a helluva lot of the movies and miniseries that are adapted from them. Some, like Carrie and The Shining, I count among my favorite horror films but even the ones that are less than stellar are usually enjoyable. Children of the Corn is definitely entertaining. It's thirty years old and some elements have aged better than others. There are extremely questionable special effects at the end that might have been cutting edge in 1984 but are undeniably hilarious at this point. Still, murderous religious zealots, even pint-sized ones (or maybe especially pint-sized ones), will always manage to unnerve me.  The performances are fairly solid (especially John Franklin's Isaac, the boy preacher and ring leader of the children of Gatlin, who steals every scene he's in) and the movie does a good job of slowly, steadily building a sense of dread.

If you're looking for a decent scary movie with a side of - wait for it - corny, this is the one to watch.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ginger Snaps

I've seen Ginger Snaps more times than I care to remember. It's one of my horror stand-bys every October. The premise is simple but oh-so brilliant, the story so perfectly and enthusiastically executed and the performances so endearing that it's impossible not to fall in love all over again every time I watch it. It is everything I want in a horror movie. It's gory and a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's also intelligent and thoughtful. It's wildly entertaining but it doesn't pull punches. And it features characters I genuinely care about, which makes the inevitable tragedy of the movie's conclusion all the more heatbreaking. I like horror that scares me but also makes me feel something beyond terror. Ginger Snaps certainly fits that bill.

Ginger Snaps is the story of the close-knit, misfit Fitzgerald sisters. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) live in the suburban Canadian town of Bailey Downs, a place whose only defining characteristic seems to be its ordinariness. A recent rash of animal killings are, apparently, the only thing that breaks up the monotony and the townsfolk are all a-twitter over the unknown man or beast who is tearing their canine companions limb from limb under cover of darkness. I wondered why these folks didn't just bring their beloved pooches inside at night but maybe they're too dimb-witted and chipper to think that tragedy could strike in their own backyards. It's obvious from the outset that Brigitte and Ginger are fed up with this bland, insipid little community. When they're assigned the school project "Life in Bailey Downs" the girls do a photo shoot and stage pictures of each other commiting various forms of suicide. When they present their slide show to their class their teacher is appalled but the male students think that Ginger is hot. Brigitte and Ginger are bright and creative (and hardworking when they wanna be, cause that suicide project took some effort) but this is not a community that fosters their particular brand of creativity. They clash with their female classmates, who think the sisters are freaks. And while the boys may pine for Ginger she couldn't care less about any of them. The girls have made a pact to get out of Bailey Downs or end their lives and they constantly repeat their mantra "out by sixteen or dead in this scene." Even though they're death obsessed they don't seem to actually want to die. They just seem incredibly stifled and bored. Under different circumstances I'd like to think they'd have gotten out of town and made a new life for themselves in a community where they could feel more accepted. But this isn't that kind of movie.

The one person in town who supports the girls wholeheartedly is their mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers). But, sadly, support doesn't always equal understanding. Pamela is the kind of woman who wears appliquéd vests, hair bows and festive, dangling pumpkin earrings. She is relentlessly chipper. She comes across, initially, as the target demographic for Hobby Lobby but she's more accepting and open-minded than she first appears. Or maybe she just loves her girls so unconditionally that she overlooks their eccentricities. More than anything, Pamela is preoccupied with the fact that neither of her high-school aged daughters has gotten her first period. So when Ginger complains of pain in her lower back one night at dinner Pamela can barely contain her glee when she asks "Do you think it might be cramps?" There's a definite reluctance on the part of both girls to accept that this is something they're inevitably going to have to deal with. To them the transition to womanhood (ugh, what a Hallmark way of saying it but I couldn't think of anything else) is just another way of selling out and conforming. Sexual maturity is part of what makes their classmates into a bunch of idiotic airheads, as evidenced most clearly by the school's Queen Bee Trina (Danielle Hampton), a mean girl of the highest order who taunts and torments the Fitzgerald sisters during PE class but turns into a simpering pile of empty-headed goo after school when she sees the local drug dealer, and object of her unrequited affection, Jason (Jesse Moss). 

Nevertheless, Ginger does get her first period. Which happens to coincide with a full moon. So, while the girls are out looking for dead dog parts (to use in a prank they're planning for their nemesis, Trina) they are confronted by a werewolf, who attacks Ginger. The girls manage to outrun the beast (who is promptly dispatched by Jason and his minivan) and by the time Brigitte gets her sister home Ginger's wounds have already begun to heal. Post-attack, Ginger becomes increasingly volatile; she's hostile and combative towards Brigitte and she's suddenly got a voracious sexual appetite. But we still catch glimpses of the real Ginger and it's clear that she is a very frightened young woman. One who feels she is no longer in control of her emotions or her body and who is terrified of the damage she might do. It's up to Brigitte to find a cure before the next full moon transforms her beloved sister into a full-on lycanthrope.

I have a particular affinity for tragic female monsters. Angela Bettis's May Canady and Sissy Spacek's Carrie White always elicit my sympathies, even when their stories spiral into bloodbaths and their actions become impossible to condone. Katharine Isabelle's Ginger is cut from the same cloth. The thing that makes Ginger Snaps so special is the incredible bond between the Fitzgerald sisters. Even when every trace of Ginger's humanity is gone the beast she has become still recognizes Brigitte as her sister. And Brigitte is loyal to the end to Ginger. I usually feel bad for misfit characters because they're isolated and alone so the love and devotion these two outcast siblings feel for one another really resonated with me. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle have fantastic on-screen chemistry and create a bond that's entirely believable. At the outset Brigitte is surly and Ginger is mouthy but as the movie progresses you see the warmth and affection they have for one another and the underlying vulnerability they both feel after being thrust into an impossible, hellish situation. I thought the supporting players defied expectation in pleasant ways, too. Mimi Rogers is terrific as Pamela, whose perpetually perky demeanor belies the depth of her fierce maternal instincts. Jesse Moss's Jason, who initially seems like a cool guy looking out for his own interests, turns out to be sensitive and genuinely concerned for the sisters when he understands their plight. Even Danielle Hampton's Trina exhibits flashes of insecurity underneath her icy, hateful exterior.

Like Carrie, I wonder sometimes about the message Ginger Snaps is trying to convey. I think there's something empowering about Ginger owning her "curse" (in both senses of the word) but as things escalate and she's shown to be out of control I start to worry that the moral to the story is "women who own their sexuality, who feel empowered by it, are scary and need to be put in their place." I feel like that's surely not what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from this movie. Maybe it's meant more as a critique of society's view of strong women rather than a critique of the women themselves. Or, most likely, it's just a story about how awkward and crummy it is to be a teenager and feel like you don't belong. And once you hit puberty and your body starts betraying you things get even worse. I dunno. I'm probably overthinking it. I do know that this is a movie dominated by dynamic female characters and it features actresses who deliver compelling performances. That alone makes it worth checking out. The sharp, snarky dialogue, and the great special effects (sometimes a bit hoaky but mostly a great big practical gore win) are just icing on the cake. This one is definitely something special.