Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category
Making holiday themed horror films is a very tricky things. Everyone wants to be Black Christmas, a film which not only jumpstarted the slasher film wave, way back when, but also set the tone for an entire genre to follow (though it was largely eclipsed in popular memory by the equally influential Halloween-which, ironically, borrowed heavily from it). Mostly what you end up with, though is Silent Night, Deadly Night, films which exist only to wring some money out of saps amused by the notion of a holiday themed horror film. Christmas horror is especially tricky, what what millions of concerned moms (or a dozen or so with a bank of fax machines) ready to pounce on anyone who dares to show less than due deference to their narrow, easily offended views. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining why so few film-makers show anymore ambition than what it takes to create a Thankskilling.
Rare Exports opens with an American mining crew excavating Korvatunturi mountain near the border between Finland and Russia, allegedly for minerals, but in fact in the search for a tomb deep in the heart of the mountain. Their actions are noted by Pietari and Juuso, local boys and sons of reindeer herders. Pietari is afraid of Santa Claus, having read up on ancient legends which paint him as a monstrous child-killer, and becomes convinced that the tomb belongs to Santa. Meanwhile, the adults of the community are disturbed to discover that something has slaughtered their entire herd of reindeer, leaving the community $85,000 short of what they needed to survive the coming year, and blame Russian wolves driven into their territory by the mining. On Christmas Eve, a naked man wanders into a pit-trap dug by Pietari’s father. Uncommunicative, but strangely interested in Pietari and gingerbread, the disappearance of all the local children goes unnoticed, as the adults decide that the man must be a miner, and decide to ransom him back to his employer. It’s only Pietari’s insistence that something more sinister is going on (such as the disappearance of every other child in their community) that convinces the adults that they are, somehow, holding Santa Claus prisoner. When they do take “Santa” to the mining site, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone involved has badly misunderstood the actual situation, leading to an apocalyptic conclusion and a new lease on life for the community in a curiously cynical yet uplifting ending.
Rare Exports veers more towards the “dark fantasy” territory for horror films, which is appropriate, as the entire enterprise is essentially a long set-up for a punchline. It’s never particularly scary, or creepy, but the “twisted fairy tale” tone is enough to propel the plot forward. It’s also not particularly funny, save for the punchline aspect to it. It also flirts with several themes that never quite get fully developed. They hint at a conflict between the “modern” world as represented by the mining company and the traditional world represented by the reindeer herders, with the truth about Santa serving as a reminder that “tradition” has its unspoken problems, but it’s never fully developed. There’s some father/son conflict suggested in the relationship between Pietari and his father, but again it’s never fully developed, and is ultimately resolved when Pietari puts away his childhood toys and becomes a man symbolically by conquering Santa. Despite these issues, the film is ultimately fun and clever, and moves briskly. It feels a bit short in fact, which also contributes slightly to the underdeveloped feeling the plots and themes present, but is ultimately a rewarding watch.
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One of the frustrating aspects of watching a lot of horror films, is that it very quickly becomes apparent that the genre tends to rely heavily on cliches and stock characters. Not all films, but the grind-out, cheap, fast and exploitative films that are the bread-and-butter of the genre. Partly that’s just plain old laziness; the audiences aren’t paying enough attention anyway, the last thing you want to do is make things harder for them by challenging them with new characters or unfamiliar situations. Partly it’s genre purist adherence to “the rules,” and that sort of tunnel-vision is a pet peeve of mine for another time. So when a film not only breaks down the cliches that dominate the genre, but actually makes the subversion of those cliches its central premise, it’s worth noting.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil opens with a stock group of obnoxious frat boys and their girl-friends in a truck, on their way to a camping trip in the woods, smoking pot and bemoaning the lack of beer, when they narrowly avoid a collision with a beat-up pick-up truck driven by a pair of “creepy” hillbillies. But, rather than follow the kids, we cut to the pick-up and discover that the “creepy” guys are…just two guys, Tucker and Dale, on their way to the fishing cabin that Tucker just sunk all of his savings into buying. Dale is stricken with one of the college girls, Allison, but belligerent Alpha Male wannabe Chad continually puts off his friends with talk about “freaks” and “hillbillies” and other insults coded with contempt for the less fiscally secure than he and his friends. Later that night, Tucker and Dale are night-fishing when Allison and the rest of the kids decide to go skinny-dipping. Allison is startled by Tucker and Dale and falls in the lake, hitting her head and knocking herself out. Dale dives in to save her, which the kids mistake for a kidnapping. In the morning, Dale makes Allison breakfast while her friends prepare to “rescue” her. Due to accidents with farm equipment, three of the kids end up killing themselves, convincing Tucker and Dale that the college students are camping out as some sort of suicide pact and are trying to force Allison to join in. Stand-offs between the groups continue to whittle down the number of college students, though Chad does manage to capture and torture Tucker in order to, well…supposedly to rescue Allison but really because he wants to. Allison eventually manages to talk Chad and Dale into discussing the situation, in an attempt to peaceably resolve the conflict, only for Chad to reveal that his mother was the sole survivor of a “hillbilly” attack on college students twenty years ago. Chad manages to blow up the cabin, kidnapping Allison and killing the rest of his friends, and Dale sets off to rescue her. In the process, Allison and Dale discovers that Chad’s real father was the “hillbilly” killer of twenty years ago, making him part hillbilly, and the pair are able to outwit him, leaving him seemingly for dead, and free to pursue their budding romance.
There’s a lot to like about the film, and it works well as a comedy, but again most of the horror works more as parody of the genre rather than as something scary in its own right. What’s frustrating about the film, though, is that it sets up a nice inversion to the normal “kids in the wood”/serial killer-slasher cliches, but never risks actually following through on them. Yes, Tucker and Dale are nominally the heroes and preppie Chad is the villain, but both Tucker and Dale are required to be oblivious to the fact that their antics do, out of context, come off as creepy. Meanwhile, the revelation that Chad is “half hillbilly”, and the use of that as explanation for why he sets out on a murderous rampage, buys into the same stupid, classist assumptions of every other “killer redneck” film out there. And that’s what’s really aggravating. The film flirts with the idea of actually addressing the offensive “poor people are evil subhumans” subtext of many horror films, but ultimately only manages to reinforce it. Even the romance between Dale and Allison is only allowable because, unlike her friends, Allison, it turns out, is actually from a blue-collar background as well, further cementing the class restrictions that Chad was so eager to enforce earlier in the film. And mostly I find all this frustrating because the film otherwise is so very good and the makers of horror films don’t need to shy away from their subtext, they don’t have to dumb it down, and that’s what it feels like happened here.
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The limits of horror as a genre fairly vaguely defined. There’s a tremendous amount of sci-fi horror, for example, but mostly what you get there are gore and splatter films with sci-fi trappings, or straight-forward sci-fi films that merely have some scary elements; actual blends of both sci-fi and horror are fairly rare. For that matter, we have pretty much the same problem with comedy and horror films. Fantasy and horror is somewhat less tricky, since there’s a dark aspect to many fantasy stories that fits with horror. But if you go to dark, are you still really a fantasy film, or just a horror film with a silly monster?
Trollhunter focuses on a trio of college students making a documentary about bear poachers in Norway. Interviewees tell us that there have been a large number of bears killed by poachers recently, but each site contains anomalous evidence that licensed bear hunters are unable to explain. The students begin tracking a mysterious man who seems to be the poacher, but when they finally track him down, hoping to catch him in the act of illegal hunting, the group is attacked by a giant, three-headed troll. The hunter, Hans, explains to the students the next morning that he is actually a government agent, tasked with monitoring the troll population and killing them when they move out of their territory and threaten the civilian population. The documentary then shifts to an expose of the colossal secret, the existence of the trolls, that the government has been keeping from the populace. Despite some setbacks, including rabies and the devouring of the Christian cameraman by a group of trolls, the tape makes its way to the public.
Trollhunter isn’t much of a horror film. It uses the language of horror films quite extensively. The “found footage” genre and the “true story” angles are common cliches for horror, and Trollhunter makes use of both. But ultimately, while the techniques do manage to create some tension, the fairy-tale monsters never really quite manage to come off as scary or threatening. What the film does work as, if you consider it as such, is satire, mostly of the horror genre, but also of the “found footage”/faux-reality techniques that have become so pervasive. In that context, the inherent silliness of the subject matter works well when matched with the slightly unbelievable horror the characters seem to be experiencing. The film takes itself too seriously, and so the humor comes through from the concept itself. And while the “dark fairy tale” aspect is sort of scary, the modern setting isn’t used to its full effect. None of which is to say the film is bad, at all. Quite the opposite, it’s a stellar film, but it’s also only a kinda-sorta-horror film, ultimately being more of a fantasy-comedy than straight-forward horror.
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Farce is hard to pull off at the best of times. Exaggerated situations and cartoonish characters aren’t exactly relateable for most audiences, so you have to be really funny to counteract the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Which is probably why so many things that pass for farce are just really broad jokes, delivered with a “laugh now” inflection for the viewer. Trying to add horror to farce just complicates everything more than is necessary, which probably explains why so many horror comedies go so broad when trying for farce, and why zombies are so popular a subject, since their inherent unreality and unrelateability doesn’t get in the way of the joke.
Which is a long way of going simply to say that it’s really tricky to pull off satisfying farce in a horror film if you’re not making it about fucking zombies.
Botched opens with Richie and two compatriots stealing diamonds from an auction house during the auction itself. Before they can get away, though, their car crashes and Richie is the only survivor, losing the diamonds in the chaos. To make up for the debt he owes mob boss Groznyi, he agrees to steal an antique cross from an office building in Russia, and is paired up with two brothers, one an idiot and one…an idiot but a trigger-happy one. Predictably, this heist goes wrong as well, and the three are forced to take hostages when they become trapped in an elevator, including office worker Anna, reporter Dmitry, incompetent security guard and alleged ex-spetsnaz officer Boris and a trio of female missionaries. Richie and his companions originally believe that they have been trapped on the 13th floor of the building and are waiting for a stand-off with the police, but when a man dressed in medieval Russian armor begins killing the hostages, it becomes clear that they have stumbled onto the killing floor of a serial killer who believes himself to be the descendant of Ivan the Terrible. Working with his sister, the head of the missionaries (who had been in the process the women to the killing floor when they were taken hostage), he picks his way through the hostages and criminals, using vaguely Rube Goldbergian schemes and traps, while Richie and Anna try to escape. Critically wounding the brother-sister pair, Richie and Anna make their way out, while Boris accidentally alerts building security to the situation, leaving Richie to deliver the crucifix to Groznyi and return to America with Anna.
On the horror-comedy scale, Botched definitely leans more towards the comedy end of things. It opens much like a heist film, and uses much of that same structure throughout. Only instead of clever crooks having to evade police, we have clever crooks trying to evade a serial killer, a more extreme situation, a less plausible situation, and a far more dangerous situation. But rather than play up that situation for drama, the film uses cartoonish characters and gives us Richie, an everyman who must react to the lunatic he’s surrounded by and the unfathomably terrible situation he’s in. But, again, the film goes broad, highlighting the surreal and bizarre nature of Richie’s situation, acknowledging to the audience that, yes, we know that this is an entirely absurd situation, just go with it. And so, crazed religious fundamentalist descendants of the czars on killing sprees it is.
Some horror sub-genres often feel like a better fit for melding comedy and horror than others. Zombies, for certain, seem to lend themselves to comedy quite well. Vampires have had a fair go too. Ghosts, werewolves…not so much. Slashers and thrillers would not seem likely to be a good match for a comedic tone. The “terror level” tends to be fairly high in slashers and thrillers, possibly because they’re the sub-genre most grounded in, for lack of a better word, “reality.” And it is arguable that, from many perspectives, slashers tend to be the most problematic sub-genre of horror films, and have a tendency to trend towards the exploitative and misogynistic in many cases. And there’s always the faint specter of there something…untoward about making jokes about people being horribly murdered by maniacs. So slasher comedies tend to be rare, because they’re really, really trick to pull off.
Severance opens with a mixed group of British and American employees of a weapons contractor and design company, Palisade Defence, on a bus travelling through the mountains of Hungary on a “team building” exercise for the weekend. The group is a fairly typical mix of office types/slasher cliche victims: the yes man, the handsome jock, the mousey girl, the stoner, the tomboyish “Last Girl” sort and the manager filling in the “oblivious authority figure” role. Their journey is interrupted by a fallen tree blocking the path. The driver refuses to take an alternate route through the woods and Richard, the manager, walks the group to the lodge on foot, eventually declaring a run-down, decrepit old house to be their destination. Meanwhile, a figure appears to be watching the group from the woods, and they narrowly miss discovering a corpse in the underbrush. It quickly becomes apparent that the dilapidated building is a far cry from the luxury chateau the group was promised, but Richard refuses to admit the possibility of making an error and forces the group to stay the night. A cache of medical files bearing the Palisade logo is found in a nearby shed, and rumors of a seedy incident in Palisade’s past is recalled, when the residents of a Russian asylum for war criminals broke loose and the military hunted down escapees, using chemical weapons supplied by Palisade. After a rough night, the group decides that it’s time to leave and two head for the main road in search of assistance while the rest stay behind to participate in a team-building exercise of paintball. The body of the bus driver is discovered by those who left, and the judge of the paintball game wanders into a field set with bear traps, losing his leg in the process. The two groups join back together and attempt to leave in the bus, only to discover the road is booby-trapped. A man wearing a balaclava then begins to pick off the group one-by-one, driving the survivors back to the house. They attempt to wait out the night, but discover that the killer has entry through an unexplored basement. Soon only three members of the group are left: Richard, Maggie (the stereotypical “Last Girl”) and stoner Steve. Richard escapes into the woods, leaving Maggie and Steve to kill the masked man. They leave, thinking their ordeal is over, only to walk into another six heavily armed men, who chase them through the woods to the actual chateau, with Richard sacrificing himself in the chase to take out several of the men in a mine field, where they discover the owner of Palisade partying with two escorts Steve had hired online earlier. Steve and Maggie manage to eventually take out the rest of the men, leaving the pair and the escorts to escape by boat in the morning.
Severance mostly plays closer to the horror end of the spectrum, front-loading most of the jokes and basing them on the character’s personalities and reactions to the uncomfortable “team building” situation they find themselves in. The characters themselves are mostly flawed, but realistically so, and most of them are given a chance to demonstrate that there is depth of humanity to them greater than merely their office roles or their “slasher film” role designations. That humanity helps the film tremendously to avoid falling into the trap that too many slasher movies lay; making their victims too unpleasant and too unrelatable and cartoonish, so that the audience ends up quietly hoping that they will die quickly and leave the screen forever. We actually feel a connection to these characters, and when the jokes stop and the situation becomes deadly, we hope that the innocent survive. Given the morally questionable nature of the work the characters do, that is an especially critical need, in particular when it becomes apparent that the situation they are in is one that, indirectly, the company they work for is responsible for, on every level.
Skeleton Crew, 1986 ed, Stephen King
“The Monkey” is pretty much the origin of that tired joke about “Stephen King just takes an ordinary thing, makes it evil, and writes a book.”
Here’s the thing…it fucking works in “The Monkey.”
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally not a fan of zombie films (and yes, I’m well aware that, every year, I seem to hit a couple of them with these reviews). Mostly I dislike them because, well…they’re boring, and usually all anyone ever wants to do with them is gore or tired “oh, humans are the real monsters” moralizing. Gore is generally pretty dull, and that moralizing tone always rings false to me, because in a contest between humans who may or may not be jealous, petty, and/or racist and flesh-eating, rotting ghouls, I’m always going to go with the ghouls being the real monsters. So the “zombie” films I tend to like are the ones that tend to go far afield from usual routine in terms of tone, since the “not really zombies” trick doesn’t tend to impress me much either. The Return of the Living Dead is about as close to a “pure” zombie film as you can get and still keep my interest. A lot of that has to do with the strange nexus point it represents in the “canon” of zombie films. It’s an indirect sequel to the original Romero films, but posits those films as taking place in the realm of fiction; sort of the Earth 1 of zombie movies to Romero’s Earth 2. I find it hard to resist that sort of metatextual shenanigan.
The film opens with a jokey title card announcing that this is a “true story,” an attempt at versimilitude that feels increasingly lazy today but was relatively rare at the time, and actually ties in to one of the minor themes of the film. We then cut to Freddy, newest employee at a medical supply warehouse, being shown the ropes by foreman Frank and company owner Burt. Burt heads home, and Frank decides to impress the new kid by telling him how that “zombie movie” was actually a true story, only the military forced the film-maker to change the details. And the proof is in the chemical containers hidden in the warehouse basement, accidentally shipped to the warehouse due to a government error, each containing a preserved zombie. Frank shows the containers to Freddy and accidentally douses the two of them with the gas that reanimated the corpses, knocking them out as the container cracks open. Meanwhile, Freddy’s girl-friend, the suspiciously clean-cut Tina, and their much more Hollywood Punk friends decide to wait out the end of Freddy’s shift in the cemetary next door. Frank and Freddy wake up to find all the fleshy dead things in the warehouse coming back to life, including a medical cadaver. They’re more surprised, though, to learn that destroying the brain doesn’t do much to the zombies, and that films lie. They call up Burt, and the three cut up the body and take it to the morturary next door, since Ernie the Undertaker owes Burt a favor. The smoke from the incinerated body interacts with the storm clouds above the cemetary, coating the entire plot of land with the zombie reanimating chemicals to predictable results. Eventually the surviving punks make their way to the mortuary where the survivors, and a rapidly deteriorating Frank and Freddy, hole up. Before the end of the evening events continue to slip further and further into chaos, and the military drops a nuclear bomb on the entire city, ending the film.
By modern standards, The Return of the Living Dead is pretty tame. The gore is fairly minimal, most of the zombies are in pretty decent condition, and the usual markers of 80s exploitative horror, bare breasts, are limited to a few mid- to long-shots of naked Linnea Quigley. Even the comedy is fairly subdued; there are a few pratfalls early on, but the comedy mostly tends to focus around an earthy sex/death consciusness that informs the whole film, reaching it’s height when Trash (played by Linnea Quigley) reveals that to her mind the worst possible way to die would be to be chased by old men who then eat her alive, and sure enough that’s exactly what happens to her later in the film. It’s that sort of black-humored irony that informs most of the not-quite jokes, culminating in the ultimate “everybody dies” ending when the entire city is destroyed in nuclear fire. Most of the actual joke-jokes come from the zombies themselves. While the film is generally credited as being the origin of the zombie brain-eating connection (as opposed to the simple flesh-eating of earlier film ghouls), it is less rarely credited for its use of fast zombies, clever zombies and articulate zombies. These aren’t simply aimlessly wandering cadavers; they plan, they emote, and their hunger for brains is rooted firmly in their need to alleviate the physical and existential pains of death. It’s still dark comedy, but the deadpan dialogue of the zombies is endearing.
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As I’ve mentioned before, the 80s were kind of a weird time for horror movies. My own biases may be showing when I say this, but mentally I most associate the decade with slasher films, with sci-fi/horror hybrids holding their own in the first half of the decade, and supernatural horror making it’s way back in the later half. Vamp is an interesting case because, by most standards, it’s not really a very good movie, but it’s oddly compelling. I think part of it’s appeal, apart from Grace Jones in bodypaint of course, is that it’s part of that wave of reappraisal of classic movie monsters that was going on during the decade. It comes after Fright Night, with it’s “smarter than it needed to be” insistence that no, really, vampires can be scary, and precedes both the preening, swoony teen bad-boy rebels of The Lost Boys and the completely unromantic portrayal of vampires in Near Dark, yet shares elements of all of them, hinting at a pretty decent understanding of the zeitgeist by the folks who made it.
The film opens in suitably Gothic tones, with college slackers Keith and AJ enduring a lame hazing ritual for the frat they’re pledging. AJ, the alpha of our pair, proposes that, instead of trying to scare them with fake hangings and robes and chanting, why don’t Keith and AJ just get a stripper for the party tonight? The frat agrees, which leaves the pair with no choice but to borrow a car from desperate to be liked rich kid Duncan (with the price being the very reasonable demand that they take him along and pretend to be his friend) to drive the 200 miles to the city and find a stripper. A near collision in traffic sends the trio spinning from the mundane urban streets to a green and red light urban underworld where, despite a run-in with an aggressive gang of albinos, they eventually make their way to the “classy” After Dark Club, a run down, divey strip club where the atmosphere is at odds with the bizarrely avant-garde performances. AJ is led back-stage to meet with Katarina, the club’s headliner, and what he thinks is a stripper who is really into him ends up being just a hungry vampire. Keith, meanwhile, is being flirted with by waitress Amaretto, who insists they know each other despite Keith’s utter failure to recall who the hell she’s supposed to be. When it’s discovered that AJ was not the friendless drifter the staff believed him to be (because a handsome kid in nice clothes isn’t going to be missed at all, apparently), they arrange to kill Keith, exposing the true nature of not just the club, but the entire neighborhood to Keith and Amaretto. When chases through sewers and the vampiric resurrection of AJ fail to get rid of Keith, the vamps decide to simply…corner him in the club and kill him after last call. Keith and Amaretto manage to survive, however, burning down the club and killing Vampire Queen Katarina by trapping her in sunlight.
Plot-wise, Vamp doesn’t really have much going for it. The story is simple and straight-forward and not terribly inventive in its structure. Where the film shines, though, is in the production aspects. The red and green lighting dominates the film, and coupled with the increasingly off-kilter and mis-framed shots, creates a disorienting sense of unreality that permeates the urban wasteland setting. The urbanoia is mostly effective, though comically overplayed, and feels less committed to than the vampire plot. Yes, an albino street gang is visibly interesting, but serve little purpose other than to justify a joke near the end of the film. More effective is the film’s take on vampires. It’s unromantic, and despite the glamour of Katarina and her girls, the vampires themselves are grotesque and animalistic, mostly communicating in grunts and snarls, if at all. It’s another clever touch, making the veneer of “sexy” the vamps possess just a cover for the beast beneath. Katarina is beautiful and exotic, like a tiger, but she’ll rip your heart out if you get too close, like a tiger. With all that mood and a relative paucity of gore, it’s a bit surprising that most of the humor is fairly dry, arising from characters reacting to their situation with an air of disbelief. They could have gone broad, and do, to ill-effect during Katarina’s death scene. But mostly the humor comes from the characters having trouble believing that any of this could actually be real. In other films, this would be something that strains disbelief, but given the fantastical landscape the action takes place in, this sort of reaction feels natural. It’s one of the reasons why the film can be frustrating. Great thought went into production, and care was taken with some aspects of the story, but the heart of it just fails to connect in any meaningful way.
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