Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thank You For Your Service

Dan Stevens in The Guest

I went into The Guest (2013, directed by Adam Wingard) more or less blind. I had no clue what it was about or if it had good reviews or anything. For someone as immersed in movie culture as I am, this is highly unusual. Oh, I know Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett's other films. Barrett is a native of my hometown and he usually brings his films to our local arthouse, so I had an inkling of what to expect, but I was mostly wrong. This film is more polished than any of their other productions (including You're Next, which got distribution from a major studio). There's obviously more money involved. More than that, though, there's a more disciplined approach to the filmmaking itself. Gone are the mumblecore performances and wandering hand-held camera. I wouldn't call this slick--it's much too rooted in pulp traditions for that--but it is certainly goes down easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blood of the Dragon

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold

A friend of mine described Dracula Untold (2014, directed by Gary Shore) as "300 with vampires." I can see what she means. Any retelling of the story of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, however tinged by dark fantasy, is liable to stumble over 21st century global politics. In his time, Vlad was a hero to the people of Wallachia and Romania and Eastern Europe for standing as a bulwark between Christendom and the depredations of the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The allegorical potential in a contemporary world divided in conflict along the lines of Christian and Muslim is too rich. This analogy breaks down, though, when one considers the (anti) hero of the piece. Even in his own time, Vlad Dracula was famed for his bottomless cruelty. I almost wish the filmmakers had included some of the gorier stories about Vlad (in one--my favorite, actually--a trio of monks refused to doff their skullcaps to the Prince, so he nailed them to their heads). Not for nothing is Vlad III forever nicknamed "Vlad the Impaler," something with which this film is very much in tune. Vlad Dracula was a monster even before Bram Stoker modeled his famous vampire upon him. So what do you get if you cast a monster as the bulwark of Christianity against the Infidel Turks? Something different than an allegory for contemporary politics, or, at the very least, a very different kind of allegory than the right-wing jingoism of 300.


The legend of Vlad the Impaler and of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula are so intertwined anymore that it hardly seems worth it to untangle them. The imagery implicit in such an entanglement is much to rich to abandon to mere factuality. One doesn't need the huggermugger of the horror genre to be horrified at the forests of impaled enemies Vlad left in his wake to intimidate his enemies. A contemporary reading of the way Vlad conducted his war against the Turks would convict him of crimes against humanity. Medieval warfare was brutal in ways that we can't even conceive anymore. Adding the vampire legend to Vlad almost seems beside the point, but add it to the story of Vlad the Impaler this film does, and the additional Romantic tragedy that has somehow accreted to both myths.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The After Party

Emily Bergl in The Rage: Carrie 2

At the time of its release, I remember people describing The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999, directed by Katt Shea) as a sequel no one wanted. I mean, seriously, this comes, what? 23 years later? I didn't see it when it was in theaters. It certainly wasn't a sequel that I wanted. In some ways, I'm glad I waited until now to watch it. There are things in this film that I would not have appreciated in 1999, blinded as I was at the time by whatever vestige of male privilege I once had. A decade without that privilege tends to lift the blinders. The Rage's prescience is startling. Like Kimberly Pierce's remake a decade later, this is a film that benefits from a female gaze.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Highschool Sweethearts

Amber Heard in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane


All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006, directed by Jonathan Levine) had a complicated release. Made and released in other parts of the world mid-last decade, it didn't make it to American screens until 2013 (not that this matters much to determined fans with all-region DVD players or a willingness to torrent, but still...). The film itself is manifestly American in its setting and its idiom, being a throwback to the slasher films of the 1980s, so this is doubly vexing. I doubt this did much bank elsewhere.


Note: this movie is a trickster, so if you don't like spoilers, consider yourself warned. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sweets to the Sweet

Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd in Candyman

Candyman (1992, directed by Bernard Rose) is the best film adaptation of Clive Barker. It's a film that fulfills the promise those blurbs on the original Books of Blood trumpeted ("I have seen the future of horror..."). It's one of the most profoundly frightening films of the 1990s, a decade short on really effective fright films. Oh, it flies off the rails in the end, as most films based on Barker do, but before then? Oh, it's the primo stuff.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prom Night

Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie (2013)

There's a legend about Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, in which Doubleday editor Bill Thompson was convinced to buy and publish the book because the secretaries were found to be passing the manuscript around the office, completely horrified and utterly mesmerized by its first scene. You know the one? In which poor Carrie White has her first period and her classmates pelt her with tampons while chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" That scene and, indeed, the book itself suggest a story that ought to be examined with a female gaze. It's categorically a book about women in which men are barely present as active characters with agency. While I'm not going to grouse about Brian De Palma's film version on the whole--it's one of the landmarks of the 1970s horror film--De Palma's filming of the opening scene has always struck me as mildly exploitative. It's certainly filmed from a male gaze. This is corrected by Kimberly Pierce's 2013 remake, a film that's not nearly as heartless as De Palma's film. In theory, Pierce's version of Carrie is a more faithful adaptation of King's novel, but as has happened in the past with "more faithful" versions of King, something gets lost.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Cold Shoulder

Sam Shepherd, Michael C. Hall, and Don Johnson in Cold in July

Some of the grisliest of the horror stories from the old E. C. Comics were published in their crime stories. The covers that got them in the most trouble with the Kefauver hearings were for Crime Suspense Stories and Shock Suspense Stories (though, in all fairness, Tales from the Crypt et al. weren't far behind them in terms of horribleness). When Robert Bloch bolted from the horror genre in the 1950s, it was to crime novels that he went, one of which was an unassuming potboiler named Psycho. I mention this because Cold in July (2014, directed by Jim Mickle) is one of those movies that straddles crime and horror. It's got a mean streak. Joe R. Lansdale, upon whose novel the movie is based, has been writing crime horror hybrids for decades now, and this one is salted a bit with the western. It's a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do sort of film.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Teenage Werewolves in Love

Agnes Bruckner and Hugh Dancy in Blood and Chocolate

Blood and Chocolate (2007, directed by Katja von Garnier) is an early attempt at tapping into the marketplace for young adult fiction (it's based on a book by Annette Curtis Klause). It's a werewolf film, though it forgoes the sparkling vampires as their natural enemies (Twilight would make it into theaters a year later). Other than that, it hits all of the beats like a pro: Chosen one narrative? Forbidden love? Repressive culture? It's got all that. What it lacks is a tight control of its narrative and an instinct for the jugular.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Alphabet Soup

The ABCs of Death

The ABCs of Death (2013, various directors) is the anthology movie as complete clusterfuck. The premise finds 26 filmmakers assigned a word corresponding with a letter of the alphabet. Apart from the letter and word, the filmmakers were given their heads to produce whatever they felt like producing. As with all anthology films, the results are highly variable. The rate of signal to noise in this collection is depressingly low. A lot of these films play like student films. A lot of them are profoundly scatalogical (full disclosure: totally not my thing). Depressingly few of them are any good.

Friday, October 03, 2014

On the Wagon

Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson, now in his sixties, is an unlikely candidate for action hero super-stardom, but that's where his career finds itself these days. He fills a void formerly occupied by Clint Eastwood, I guess. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014, directed by Scott Frank) will only further Neeson's career as a cinematic tough guy, even as it marginally humanizes that cinematic anima. It's more Tightrope than Dirty Harry, if you get my drift, with a salting of Unforgiven. It's also an expansion of director Scott Frank's career as one of the preeminent makers of crime cinema. It's ambitious, I'll give it that.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Who Fears the Devil?

Devil

There's a party game called "Werewolf" in which three players are werewolves and the rest of the party is villagers. Every "night," the villagers close their eyes and the werewolves "kill" one of them. During the "day" the villagers try to deduce who the werewolves are. If the villagers "kill" all the werewolves before the werewolves get them, they win, otherwise, the werewolves win. It's fun variant of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. I couldn't help but think about this while I was watching Devil (2010, directed by John Erick Dowdle), an unassuming little shocker in which five people are trapped in an elevator and one of them is, well, The Devil. It's a classic game of Werewolf, including the periods of darkness when The Devil takes the next victim.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Mind and Body


The first month that it was on HBO, I think I watched Scanners (1981, directed by David Cronenberg) six times. This wasn't easy to do, because in those days, HBO was hesitant to show anything rated a hard "R" any earlier than 9 pm. Scanners was a movie that often showed up at 3 am or later. I remember dawn breaking during one viewing, right as Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok engaged in a telepathic duel to the death. It's a film I've been living with for a long time. I used to think that it was relatively minor in Cronenberg's canon when you set it next to The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly among the films that constitute "early Cronenberg," but I've come around to a different point of view on that these days.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

50 Horror Movies for Halloween (Part 5)

Katharine Isabelle in Ginger Snaps

Tomorrow is October, so here's the grand finale.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

50 Horror Movies for Halloween (Part 4)

Angela Bettis and Anna Farris in May

One of the challenges involved with creating a project like a list is writing from distant memories rather than from fresh impressions. I rarely write about films I haven't seen in a while. In the case of some of the films I'm listing here, my impressions are decades old. It would be completely impractical to rewatch all of these films, though I imagine that most of them stand up to rewatching. The only film I've rewatched for these posts is The Queen of Spades, listed below. Others? I haven't seen The Serpent and the Rainbow since it was in theaters, nor have I seen The Other since it creeped me out of me when I was a kid, watching it on late night television. I've never forgotten any of these films, though, which it a testament to their quality.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

50 Horror Movies for Halloween (Part 3)

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

October is coming up fast, so here's the next installment of this series. I've been trying to cast a wide net across the history of horror movies, but there are some periods when the genre was in serious remission (I'm looking at you, early to mid 1990s). I'm fascinated at how great horror movies cluster around certain times: the early 1930s, the 1970s, the 2000s. I'm tempted to pontificate on the sociology of these groupings, but I'll spare you that. In any event here's the next ten films for your perusal: