Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category

Clive Barker is a challenging author to adapt. His later work is nicely lyrical dark fantasy, but it’s hardly cinematic. His early work is slight and heavy on the gore, though, so that’s what usually gets turned into films. And, of course, everyone eyes greedily the franchise potential of “the next Hellraiser“. In general, then, Barker adaptations work best when they use the old “inspired by” trick to take the framework of the story and do something more cinematically appropriate, as is the case with Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, a somewhat overlooked film which was the victim of studio shenanigans (why, yes, it was released by Lionsgate).

Leon (played by a pre-breaking Bradley Cooper), is a vegan photographer with a straining relationship with his girlfriend and a desperate desire to hit it big in the art world and get away from his current work, photographing crime scenes freelance. After being told that his art-school deep photos simply won’t cut it, he delves into the dark heart of the city and interrupts an attempted gang-rape. The next morning he learns that the intended victim has disappeared and Leon finds the police oddly indifferent to his photos of the possible perpetrators. While investigating, Leon stumbles upon Mahogany, a butcher who has been killing people on the late-night subways. Becoming increasingly unhinged at the refusal of anyone to believe him, Leon continues investigating, and eventually learns of a vast conspiracy behind Mahogany’s actions. Eventually Leon learns that Mahogany, and an unknown amount of other people in prominent positions, are arranging the murders to feed a race of subterranean creatures beneath New York, who only permit humans to live on the island (or at all it is implied) in exchange for the meat Mahogany provides. In a bleakly nihilistic ending, everything Leon values is stripped from him and he is employed as Mahogany’s replacement.

One of the most common complaints about horror films is that they exploit voyeuristic urges in the audience. Lots of films have responded to that by running with it, but Kitamura makes the idea of seeing and being seen a central element of the film’s style. Leon is almost always framing some or all of his actions through a camera lens. POV shots, from a multitude of characters pervade the film, and there are an awful lot of gore shots involving eyes. But not only that, there’s a repetition of mirror shots, reflections, seeing someone through a door or window, and numerous occasions when characters “see” the audience in some way or another. While never directly breaking the fourth wall, the film goes out of its way to make the viewer an active participant in the story in subtle (and not subtle) ways quite effectively.

Beyond that, the film is slickly produced. It’s a reverse-urbanoia film, a film ultimately about the coldness and anonymity of the city and the terrors that could lurk there so easily because there is simply too much going on for anyone to notice them. The film also teases around the “urban legend” theme that appears from time to time in Barker’s work. It’s an effective combo, but I ultimately think I value the placement of the events in the city is where the film draws it’s power. As I’ve said in the past, the classism and racism of most rural horror/urbanoia films puts me off, and the “backwoods cannibal” is a common trope there. It’s nice to see a reversal of that, even if “cannibals in the subway” is itself a bit of a trope, particularly in British and Euro horror, since Raw Meat at least.

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There are a number of directors for whom the kindest thing you can say is “they’re competent.” Paul Anderson I would place in that category. He’s clearly good enough to work steadily, and has somehow managed to make six Resident Evil and three Death Race movies profitable, but he’s never really going to be someone superlatives are laid on. Event Horizon maybe is a good illustration of this, as it is a potentially interesting idea that clearly got away from the film-maker.

At an implausible point in the near future, a rescue ship crew led by Captain Miller is escorting physicist Dr. Weir to Neptune, the last known location of the Event Horizon, a spaceship that disappeared seven years ago which has recently reappeared. The ship was on a secret mission to test a gravity drive which would allow it to travel faster than the speed of light by creating wormholes in space to move through, but has returned derelict and with signs of massive violence. Strange events begin targeting Miller’s crew, and an increasingly unstable Weir, backed by the recovered ship logs, suggest that when the ship moved “outside” space it became infected by a malign align intelligence, killed the previous crew, and is now looking for more victims. Between Weir and the ship itself, most of Miller’s crew is killed, and two survivors escape in the Event Horizon‘s “lifeboat” while Miller sacrifices himself to destroy Weir and the evil ship, though it is suggested that enough of the evil has followed the survivors home to wreak further havoc.

Stylistically, the film wears it’s influences on its sleeve, incorporating pretty shamelessly the weathered industrial aesthetic of Alien with the S&M spikiness of Hellraiser, with some dashes of The Shining and Prince of Darkness thrown in there for good measure. That’s an impressive pedigree of films to be cribbing from, but mostly it just ends up reminding you that those are mostly much better films than this one. And while this is another in Sam Neil’s series of films where he eventually succumbs to the whims of vaguely Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space, the movie itself doesn’t even have the nerve to take a stab at any interesting conceptions of “evil” or malice. A “science gone to far” theme is staring them right in the face, they set themselves up for a man doomed by grief and guilt, but nope, they end up going with “hell is out in space, somewhere” and an evil ghost ship.

I think one of the minor flaws is that, in general, horror and sci-fi aren’t an easy mix. Overlap isn’t unusual, and a lot of “sci-fi” films are basically just slasher films with aliens in place of masked killers, and horror has never shied away from using science/scientists as easy markers of hubris leading to tragedy and terror. But what you usually see, then, is a horror film in sci-fi drag, and that’s pretty much what this is.

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Look, we all know that the 90s were a pretty dire time for horror films, on the whole. So, let’s just get through Luis Llosa’s Anaconda, a misguided attempt to do a PG-13 Jaws riff, and go on with our day.

Jennifer Lopez is a documentary film-maker bringing an obnoxious British documentary host who is in no way meant to be David Attenborough on a river journey in search of a semi-mythical lost tribe. Along with her is sound-guy Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, and Owen Wilson in one of his many “guy you hope dies horribly” roles. Shortly after it becomes apparent they are lost they encounter Jon Voight as an ethnically unspecific (seriously, he can’t keep an accent straight for more than five minutes) priest turned snake hunter, who claims to know where to find the tribe they are looking for but clearly has his own agenda. Which is to take the crew deep into the Amazon in search of giant anacondas, which proceed to eat the crew one by one (save for Stoltz, who spends most of the film bed-ridden in what I’m guessing was a “rewrite me out of this, please” contract renegotiation). Eventually everyone but Lopez, Cube and Stoltz are dead and they go home, having survived improbable snake attacks.

You can see the very broad hints of something trying to be good, clawing it’s way out of here. A more clever script-writer would have noticed the parallels between the crew seeking to exploit the indigenous people of the Amazon for ratings and Voight and Wilson threatening a Latina and an African-American man in their pursuit of money from selling a big snake, but the obviousness of that symbolism is never taken advantage of. Instead, we get a very obviously plastic snake head and some dodgy CGI on obvious sound-stages. What little fun is to be found in the film is of the unintended variety, like Voight’s terrible performance and the joy of watching Owen Wilson be killed by a snake. It can’t even rise to the level of decent scares, since the snake is so obviously a prop and the PG-13 rating means all the tension is watered down and the film can’t even resort to gore to spice things up.

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It’s clear that studios had hopes that these “horror movies as action films” would go bigger than they eventually ended up going. It wouldn’t make any sense to give Peter Hyams, the man who gave the world Timecop, a prestige project based on a best-selling novel like The Relic if you didn’t expect a big return. What they ended up with was an incoherent mess that, as pretty much every critic at the time reminded us, was trying to ape the vibe of Alien “but in a museum!” while making it clear that no one involved in the production actually understood why Alien worked.

We open with a not at all culturally sensitive scene of creepy anthropologist John Whitney observing native religious rituals in South America, and then later becoming so panicked over his artifacts being shipped back to Chicago that he stows away aboard a freighter. Some time later, the boat arrives in Chicago with the entire crew killed, and a mysterious series of murders involving decapitations begin to occur at the natural history museum, with intrepid biologist Penelope Ann Miller caught in the middle of gruff detective Tom Sizemore’s investigation. Political pressure stalls the investigation so that the Mayor can attend the museum’s lush new gala, which results in the local 1%ers being slaughtered by a giant lizard-bug creature that eats human brains. Penelope eventually figures out that the creature is a bizarrely mutated John Whitney and blows up him, saving the day.

It’s a mess, honestly. It’s hard to see what, exactly, the film-makers were aiming for, as they keep cutting between elements of actual suspense and mystery and scenes where problems are solved with guns and explosions. The characters are all stock, with no real depth, and there’s a creepily racist undertone that pops up from time to time, from Miller’s rival scientist, a cheating, scheming Asian nerd, to Miller’s constant comments about “primitive” people, to the wholescale othering of Native Americans and their mutative herbs that underlies the film’s plot. But where the film really fails is in it’s half-assedness as an adaptation. Relic, the novel, had a sequel out in time for the film, but the film not only kills off recurring characters, but also completely excises a central character that would have opened up the film to franchise potential. It speaks to the sort of laziness that typifies the film.

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So, before they became an action movie imprint, the Warner Brothers/Universal production studio “Dark Castle” was a churner out of relatively cheap “horror movie as spectacle” films, in the tradition of William Castle. In fact, several of their early films were gored up versions of classic Castle films. Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship was an early effort, when they were still concentrating on doing very gorey horror films with an action movie sensibility, before they started putting Ethan Hawke in Fast and Furious knock-offs. Now, to be sure, the “horror as spectacle” trend wasn’t limited to just this one studio, but nobody hit it quite as hard as Dark Castle, nor with such a distinctive half-assedness.

After a mood-setting opening sequence, that attempts to inter-cut horrific violence with a cheery glam 60s aesthetic, we cut to Gabriel Byrne as Murphey, captain of a salvage crew that includes Final Girl lead Juliana Margulies as first mate epps and Karl Urban before anyone cared who he was. They are approached by Ferriman, a weather pilot who has spotted an abandoned ship in the Bering Sea, and offers to share the location of the ship in exchange for a substantial cut of the salvage profits. The crew agrees, as pickings have been slim and the promise of a luxury liner means good money. When they arrive, they discover that the ship is the Antonia Grazia, a well known lost ship. While patently ignoring plenty of clues that something is wrong, even Epps seeing a ghost, several times, the crew continues to explore the ship, eventually finding the remains of a previous salvage crew and crates full of gold bars. Celebrations are cut short when their ship explodes in a not at all suspicious accident and the crew must now attempt to pilot the sinking and rudderless Grazia home. The crew is picked off by ghosts one-by-one, as a ghost girl gives Epps a visual info-dump, revealing that the gold came from the Lorelei, another lost ship, along with a survivor, who convinced several of the Grazia crew members to kill the passengers and remaining crew and take the gold, before being killed themselves by the survivor. Who is revealed to be Ferriman, an apparently immortal supernatural being with a not at all portentous name. Epps destroys the ship, freeing the souls of the passengers and is rescued, only to learn that the cycle is bound to repeat.

It’s hard to find things to like about Ghost Ship. Big, loud and dumb was the name of the game with the spectacle horror films, and there’s fairly visceral thrills to be had from time to time. But the film confuses gore and special effects with actual terror, which often leads to unintended comedy. Somebody, at some point was paying attention, as there are hint-heavy murals in the background of a number of shots, not to mention the heavy-handed naming convention at work with Ferriman. Rumor has it that the script the cast was shown was almost completely jettisoned by the time filming begun, with a more psychological film turned into a jump-scare film. It’s plausible, and several cast members certainly act as if they’re in a different film than the one they ended up in.

So, in the end, we go back to that old distinction between “good” and “entertaining.” Ghost Ship isn’t good, but there’s enough of something there that was once good to wring a half-way competent “dumb fun” picture out of.

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