Posts Tagged ‘Movie Review’

Barton Fink (1991)

April 2, 2018

I used to work a lot in live theater and I still hold a lot of love for the medium in my heart. While I was working for theaters, I wrote a play and more recently I wrote another play. The first was kind of teenage angsty and I would need to dig to see if I could still find it. In case your curious, it was a one-act play about a young woman visiting her sister in a mental institution. I cannot remember the general arc of the play but I do remember thinking it was super deep. It had one reading and it was in our high school creative writing class. At one point, the patient whispers something into somebody else’s ear and the person blushes. People asked me what she said and I shrugged and said that it was up to people’s imaginations. This was not a satisfying answer to my classmates. I wrote the whole thing in the lobby of Spotlighter’s Theater (a theater here in town). The second play is kind of a meta-fantasy adventure that has to do with identity politics and my obsession with finding one’s narrative. The point here is that writing scripts is difficult but interesting.

I am completely enamored by the world of Hollywood. At least, I am enamored with the glitzy, positive side of the business. I have been watching movies since I was a tiny tot but I have been interested in behind the scenes information since I was about fourteen. I worked in live theater but I knew people who worked for the Hollywood system (though mostly in Baltimore). It always seemed mythical and larger than life to me. However, I have read enough to know the downsides. The theater is a highly collaborative art form as the cast and crew find the play through weeks (or months) of rehearsal. In film, there is more a series of final decisions. The director does not wield as much ultimate power in the Hollywood system. The studios are always breathing down their necks to make changes. For writers, it is even worse. You work hard on writing a script and then you sell it and they can bring any number of writers to rewrite your work and make it unrecognizable from what sprouted from your mind and heart. Of course, this is all what I have gathered from interviews and articles and I am sure it cannot all be that negative all the time.

First and foremost, this is a period piece written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (popularly known as the Coen Brothers). Period pieces created by the Coen Brothers are a proven commodity in Hollywood and their movies, in general, are things that I will always give a shot. Movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, and Hail, Caesar! are among my favorite movies. Even movies that I did not like as much were far better than other movies that I have seen. This is one of their early movies (their fifth) and it definitely fits in with their best. It is set in Los Angeles in the early forties at a time when the movie business was really growing. The movie follows John Turturro as an awkward yet passionate writer whose success on Broadway earns him a deal to write for Hollywood. Turturro is such a versatile actor. I have seen him as an unintelligent thug, a cartoon monkey, and a racist ass. Here he plays an intelligent man out of his element well. John Goodman is his main co-star and he plays the common man who Turturro’s character strives to write about but finds is different from his assumptions. There is also Tony Shalhoub as a hardened, cynical producer, John Mahoney as a contemporary writer, and Judy Davis as a beleaguered secretary.

This was a very interesting movie and there is not much that I could write here that could spoil the experience of watching it. The movie is notoriously hard to pin down as it could be film noir, horror, or several other genres. In fact, I read after watching that the movie is highly debated and the Coen Brothers have only confirmed a few theories. I have a few takeaways myself. The movie has a lot to with class differences. When we get separated from other walks of life, we start making generalizations and assumptions about people who are different from us. The life of the mind is also a big part of it and how dangerous one’s mind can be. Movies like The Shining and 1408 have tackled the kind of dangers one faces when they get too far inside of their head. There is also a deep unhappiness that can form from success, where we start to feel trapped by advancements that we never aimed for. I also really got a vibe about expectations and when our expectations exceed reality and how disillusioned we can get. There is a lot to unpack in this movie and far more than I have written here. All of it is done in kind of an offbeat, surreal style that just seems to be driven by awkwardness.

Overall, I loved the movie. While the movie does remain something of a strange mystery, I love a good mystery. This will be something that my mind will be chewing on and deciphering for quite some time. The dialogue is strange but also very human in certain ways, similar to The Big Lebowski (which the Coens also wrote). The pacing is unnerving and after a while, I was afraid to see what would happen next but I also needed to see it. Maybe it is because I consider myself a writer, but this movie really struck at the core of me. But I think that in many ways Turturro’s plight is universal, something that everybody faces at different times in their lives. I definitely recommend this movie but do not strain yourself too hard trying to decipher the meaning of everything.

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

April 1, 2018

So, I think that admitting that I have not seen this yet might disturb some of my friends. Particularly some of the guys in my gaming group. I have heard them quote and reference the movie several times and I have been intrigued by it the whole time. I love a lot of cult classic movies whether they are good or bad. I got on The Room bandwagon early, I have seen Rocky Horror several times, I have watched Plan 9 while shaking my head, and my favorite Halloween is the third one. The point is: I do not mind watching something that is not entirely good or accepted into the mainstream if I can get some entertainment value from it. The fact that Jeff Goldblum is in this one is telling because he is that kind of actor to me. Nothing he has made is a masterpiece but he keeps churning out enjoyable movies. Independence Day, The Fly, and Jurassic Park were all chances for him to show that he may not be the greatest actor but he is charismatic. It’s the equivalent of eating at a diner, something I used to all the time. It doesn’t give you everything it should but it makes you happy just the same.

I have read that this movie was also written as a love letter to pulp comics. I was a little young for pulp comics. Superhero comics were really hitting their stride and had long since taken over the market. However, I was young enough to really enjoy some of the stuff inspired by pulp comics. The biggest example I can think of is the Indiana Jones series. Pulp embraced so-called genre fiction which is my favorite. “Genre” includes science fiction, fantasy, superhero, horror, and other less regarded subgenres. For a long time, genre films were seen as lesser mostly because this is where a lot of filmmakers started before moving onto “more serious” films. But sometimes you do not want to watch a really serious film. Sometimes you fire up a movie simply to have fun and learn nothing. Of course, I am of the belief that you can take a lesson away from even the dumbest movie but maybe that is just me.

This movie is definitely kind of punk rock. Not only are a lot of the main characters in a rock band, they all look like they could have frequented CBGB. Of course, this was the eighties when Punk’s powers were at their height. The movie is also extremely offbeat and, like the characters does whatever it wants when it wants to. A lot of the visual style and set decoration is definitely reminiscent of old science fiction. All of the sciency things have plenty of doodads and extra bits hanging off of them. It is far from the slick, shiny science fiction of more recent movies. All of the alien stuff looks appropriately weird and foreign. The aliens themselves utilize fun rubber masks which thankfully allow them to be expressive. The effects are cheap but there is a lot of charm in that. There is also an interesting Japanese influence with the main characters using kanji and there are katanas and other little touches all over. The whole ascetic reminds me of early Doctor Who and other crazy eighties movies like Invaders from Mars and Ghostbusters.

The movie is chock full of names familiar to fans of genre movies. Buckaroo Banzai himself is played by Peter Weller who is, of course, famous for playing Robocop. In this, he plays a highly intelligent neurosurgeon/rockstar/particle physicist/adventurer. He is almost too cool and he exudes both confidence and ability. John Lithgow plays the villain as only Lithgow could. Lithgow is at his best when he is allowed to freak out and chew the scenery in every way possible. He is joined by Christopher Lloyd who is also adept at acting over the top and does it well here. Ellen Barkin plays the token female character and reminds me a lot of roles Lori Petty would later play. Jeff Goldblum plays an everyman scientist character similar to Ian Malcolm or David Levinson. The rest of the movie is full of great character actors like Clancy Brown, Jonathan Banks, Robert Ito, and Lewis Smith. These characters all get to say really cool but really goofy lines which make for a lot of fun.

Overall, I really liked this movie. I had no idea what to expect and even after reading this review, you probably will not either. This is a movie that dares to make a lot of sense while making no sense at all. I am sure that whole essays could be written on why certain decisions were made but I would sooner chalk it up to heavy drugs or just old-fashioned goofiness. As a side note, the movie takes place in New Jersey and one of the early important scenes takes place in the town I went to college in (New Brunswick). The movie has a charm as long as you sit back and let it happen instead of working your brain too hard. I definitely recommend it.

Stage Fright (2014)

October 31, 2017

82 minutes – Rated R for blood, violence, sexual situations, music, and Meat Loaf.

I have worked in theaters that I thought at the time were haunted. For years, I worked for free at the Fells Point Corner Theater. The building is an old fire station that was converted to use as a community theater in an old part of Baltimore. As such, the brick building was quite old. In the rear of the building, there was a set of ancient stairs that were never lit but were the fastest way to get from the third floor to the second floor out of view of the audience. I would walk through almost perfect darkness and I imagined ghosts very near me every time. There was also the rehearsal space in college called The Little Theater which was rumored to have been haunted by a woman named Jane who used to manage the building. People claimed she was the reason behind the radiators always being set too high. They also said that mysteriously curtains would be drawn by ghostly hands. People in theater are superstitious anyway so these sorts of things easily caught on. I never met a ghost but I believed they were there.

The combination of the horror and the musical genres seems to be a bit strange at first glance. However, there is a long history of horror musicals. The very first stage musical I ever saw was Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. That show scared the heck out of me as a little boy because it was so tense and there were some great scares including the infamous chandelier crash and an onstage hanging. In the Venn diagram of horror and musicals, the part of horror that often does not overlap is a little thing called subtlety. Musicals are big and presentational and do not often leave room for subtle, psychological horror. That is why most of the horror musicals I have seen have leaned hard into the more darkly comic elements of horror. Little Shop of Horrors is a great example, embracing the goofy B movie elements horror and science fiction used to have at the time. More recently, Evil Dead: The Musical captures the campy nature of a classic horror/comedy/action series of movies. The scares are not exactly scary but there is a gruesome creepiness pervading the whole thing.

The movie stars Allie McDonald, who is great as a young Broadway hopeful working at a performing arts summer camp who wants to get noticed. She is instantly likable and I wanted to see this young ingenue succeed. She is the daughter of a Broadway legend who is played by Minnie Driver. The head of the camp is played by Meat Loaf himself, a veteran of movie musical/horror mashups. McDonald’s twin brother is played by Douglas Smith, who is just trying to work for the camp in an effort to save and move on with his life. The three of them are backed up by a goofy gang of misfits and downtrodden kids who go to summer camp in order to have a place where they will not be picked on. The singing is absolutely great but what really sells are the clever and dark lyrics from the songs. Even songs that are supposed to be happy end up being touched by the horror. The musical within a musical is The Haunting of the Opera and they make that parody/tribute very clear. There are also a ton of references to other musicals and the culture that surrounds theater. Also, harkening back to my youth, there is definitely a clash between musicals and heavy metal.

Of course, this is still a horror film and while there is kind of a slow burn, it does get to the horror part along with the musical part. The movie sets up a good ratcheting tension until something has to give and then it gives. The movie has great tributes to movies like Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, and (maybe unintentionally) the 1987 version of Stage Fright. The special effects on the kills are great. While a lot of it is computer generated, it was very well done. The deaths are creative and they really went in directions that I was not suspecting. After watching so many horror movies (30 so far this October alone) it is really neat to still be surprised and entertained. What I loved the best about the horror aspects actually was that it was a mystery. I kept trying to figure out who the killer was and my list kept growing instead of shrinking. I love a good mystery especially when the movie does a good job of not giving the way ending. (An ending I won’t give away here either).

Overall, I loved this movie. It was way more clever and fun than I thought it was going to be and I came in with some decent expectations. Maybe it is my history with theater or maybe it is my love of dark humor and horror but this ended up being a really great movie for me. I laughed a lot during this movie which is a great way to officially end this yearly challenge to myself. The movie is goofy and silly but then it takes nosedives into the realm of horror only to come up for breath again.

(Alright, consider this a curtain call for Halloween 2017. I really enjoyed this year even more than last year. I think I am getting better at selecting movies that I think that I will enjoy versus movies that I feel I have to cover because they are iconic. While this post kind of wraps things up, I have a tiny encore on Thursday. Now, I am off to go watch Fright Night (1985) at my cousin’s house which will officially make 31 horror movies. Break a leg this Halloween and stay safe!)

Theater of Blood (1973)

October 31, 2017

104 minutes – Rated R for blood, gore, ironic murders, and violent creativity.

Working in theater is tough. I should know, I studied to be a Stage Manager for four years until I decided I did not really want to be in charge. Instead, I got a job for five years as an electrician, a carpenter, a lighting designer and a sound designer. I took pride in my work and everybody around me took pride in their work too. We lived and died by how good a show we could put on and how many people we could get to buy tickets. We wanted those people to leave at the end of the night and go tell their friends to go see the show too. Critics can be friends of that effort or they can be enemies. A lot of people, especially casual theatergoers, respect the opinions of critics and will abandon a show that is critically panned. That loses money for a theater and consequently makes an actor less likely to be hired. A bad review hurts everybody involved. So, there is palpable fear when the reviewer arrives at the theater and again when the review is published.

I seem to have settled into a pattern with some of my picks for Halloween. I tend to start to fill slots based on what I like and what I have done before. It does not always end up that way but so far there have been some constants. One of those constants is that the last two years I have reviewed a movie starring Vincent Price. This movie is this year’s offering. Vincent Price is a very unique actor. He comes from the age of film acting where a lot of the workhorses in the industry came from a theater or a live performance background. This trained most of those actors with excellent diction and high charisma. Theater also requires its actors to make everything they do larger than life so that the audience can see and hear their emotions. Therefore, theater actors making the transition to film must be coached to pull back and be more subtle. Therefore, directors rarely have to coax more out of them which feels like it would be much less work. All of this obviously helped give Price his trademark magnetically eerie voice which he could turn on and off like a simple light switch.

Vincent Price was not just a national treasure, he was also a global treasure. He had a beautiful voice that was unmatched by anyone I have yet to hear. I could listen to him read the phonebook if doing so did not send chills up my spine. Like Bela Lugosi, he was a master at making the most innocuous thing sound spooky. In this, we get Price as what he was, a brilliant but underrated actor. His musical voice echoes through most of the movie, either through dialogue or narration. Never have I seen Shakespeare used to kill people but it makes so much sense. He is joined on his journey for revenge by a motley crew who do not talk much but are comically insane. They are opposed by a group of critics played by actors who are very good at acting very posh and academic. Caught in the middle is Price’s character’s daughter who is played with absolute conviction by Diana Rigg. Additionally, there are also the police who join with a newspaperman played by Ian Hendry to try to solve the crimes.

This movie was so brilliant with its kills. Really, you need to have studied Shakespeare to some extent to truly understand each kill. I would compare the kills in this movie to another set of Vincent Price movies, the Abominable Dr. Phibes. His kills are also meant to be ironic and each one is also a literary reference. In that case, it was the Judeo-Christian bible but in this case, it is Shakespeare that guides the themes of each murder. However, this movie felt far less dreamy and while it was full of fantasy, it remained grounded and on point. On top of that, there were gallons of blood used in this movie. The deaths and the blood looked really good, especially for a seventies horror film. There are few fancy prosthetics. The effects seem to use a lot of great old theater tricks which makes them all the creepier. What is more, they take great care to add some comedy in with some of the deaths which makes the more grisly deaths all the more horrible.

Overall, I really loved this one. It was such a beautiful way to approach the end of this year’s Halloween celebration. Every year, I try to find a good Vincent Price horror/supernatural film to review because he was a legend. This year, I was also looking for movies to fit my chosen theme for Halloween. What luck that I found one that was not only focused on Shakespeare but also starred the brilliant Vincent Price. A little bit of trivia, this is also Vincent Price’s favorite movie that he ever starred in.

Stage Fright (1987)

October 31, 2017

90 minutes – Unrated but definitely Rated R for violence, brief nudity, language, and attrocious theater acting.

Stage fright is actually probably my biggest reoccurring fear. Talking in front of people is intimidating for many reasons. The least of those reasons is actually a fear of judgment. I do fear what some others might think when my ideas and personality are coming out of me in real-time. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing to the wrong group of people and feel that negative energy in response. A bigger fear for me is that I might screw up an look foolish which is related to the first fear but a little bit different. Most people are actually forgiving when it comes to verbal flubs or forgotten memorization so it is a somewhat unreasonable fear but it is that fear that keeps our concentration on point. The real fear is of the spotlight. I really do not like it when too many people pay attention to me. As an introvert, that sort of things is draining like being the only one under the desert sun. In a way, I fear success. If I succeed, I will have to do it again. As I have gotten older, I have gotten better at speaking in public and shaking off the fear.

I remember being a theater kid as an isolating experience. Theater is a collaborative art form but you are only collaborative with the other people working on the show you are working on. You spend time together during rehearsals but each person is fulfilling their role so there is not much time for socializing. I started on the crew which feels even more isolating because I spent a lot of time watching the show from an enclosed booth alone or with another person. When I joined the stage management team, there was a lot of time spent alone before or after rehearsals getting the rest of the work done. Time spent sweeping or putting tape on the floor in a completely empty and eerie rehearsal space. More than anything, the theater experience separated me from the world around me. Even when I went out into the real world, it felt alien. Non-theater classes felt different and strange and it was nearly impossible to make friends outside of the make believe fantasy world of theater.

This movie is about a theater group that is trying to put on a production about a masked killer. Unfortunately, there is also a real masked killer walking around. The movie is very eighties with new wave beats and a sweet saxophone. The makeup and costumes are clearly very eighties as well. The show is also supposed to be ‘edgy’ and ‘avant-garde’ which is usually code for ‘too up its own butt’ or ‘just plain bad’ for me. That is fine, I get to sit through the movie and not the play they are making. The movie has great production values. Lighting stands out above everything as everything is lit so well. I’m not sure how intentional it is, but every shot looks very much like theater lighting. Everything is a little too crisp, a little too bright which actually works for this movie especially since most of it takes place in a theater anyway. A new wave/synth soundtrack is very much in line with a lot of horror movies of its day. I also really liked the special effects of the inevitable violence.  They are spot on and beautifully done. Each death is theatrical without being too over the top.

In this movie, we meet probably the world’s cattiest theater group. I have worked with several theater groups and most of them are fairly chill even during crunch time. These people are constantly sniping at each other. In my experience, you were unlucky to get one of these people on your cast but this show has pretty much an entire cast full of unreasonable people. None of them stand out but that is only because none of them are famous and they are equally good at setting up a playground for the killer to play in. The killer is largely silent but he is using the old faithful tool of the slasher film: a mask. Like most, the mask seems silly at first but the killer really makes it work for him. Once the action starts, the cast’s collective IQ drops and death is imminent. While I wish death on nobody, these Halloween months have taught me that they can really try to make it easier to watch people get killed. Watching people lose their minds with fear is really fascinating, at least in this movie.

Overall, I liked this movie. While some parts dragged a bit, there was never a shortage of action. The movie follows two Italian traditions that I am barely familiar with. It is a combination of the Giallo and Italian Horror subgenres. However, it did not feel so simple as that. The movie starts as a slasher movie but the last third of the film becomes more slowly paced and is much more of a tense thriller. While the acting may not be top notch, its melodramatic air definitely makes for a good change of pace for a horror movie.

Candyman (1992)

October 30, 2017

99 minutes – Rated R for gore, psychological trauma, language, and NOT THE BEES!

I remember walking to the comic book shop when I was younger and carrying home a bundle of comic books. When I was ten, there were ads on the back of some of those comic books for a movie called Candyman. I had not yet watched any horror movies yet but I already appreciated the darker imagery. However, what scared me immediately was that there were bees on the mini poster. I have been deathly afraid of bees for a long time now. I never had a good relationship with the stinging insects but that relationship took a dive when I was little. I was hanging out in my family’s backyard near the woods and I pulled on a vine, probably to test it for Tarzan-like properties. Immediately once I yanked the vine, I was swarmed by a whole nest of bees. All of my senses were overwhelmed with pain and chaos and I had to be told what happened next. My mother ran to the rescue, pulled my shirt off and swatted the bees away with it. It took a long time for me to physically recover but I have never looked at bees the same way again after that.

The nineties seemed to be full of both slasher movies and urban legends. The early nineties were pre-internet and we got a lot of our urban legends from word of mouth. That meant that they spread slower but it also meant that a lot of them stayed less pure. As we saw with old fairy tales, as soon as cultures collided, tales seemed to merge. Perrault and Grimm seemed to dominate over any other tellings of other stories. Certain versions of tales are probably lost to time as certain authors or storytellers became more popular. Similarly, we learned one basic version of certain urban legends like Bloody Mary or the Guy With a Hook for a Hand. When the internet really fired up, these urban legends came to be called ‘creepypasta’ and you could immediately google the original version and every variation anybody ever wrote. While one author dominated, they no longer overwrote all previous versions. I am not sure which one I like better but there is something scarier when somebody is telling you a story across a campfire than reading it on the screen of a computer.

The movie was made in 1992 so the film quality is not that great. For some reason, movies started to look a little washed out in the 90s. Still, as long as you’re expecting it, it’s not a problem. Much of the movie is set in and around Chicago’s legendary/notorious Cabrini-Green projects. There is so much attention to detail in a lot of the sets. A derelict set of apartments looks as decrepit and dirty as real derelict buildings I have been in. Special care is given to really awesome (and creepy) graffiti related to the killer. Much of the filming was done in the real Cabrini-Green to make it more realistic (actual gang members were used as extras). The blood effects and the prosthetics are so good but of course they are, it’s a Clive Barker movie. So, how were the bees? They were absolutely terrifying every time they were on screen and each appearance was worse than the last. Way more terrifying than those TV movies about real-life killer bees even. The thought that they are all real and were specifically bred for the movie is even scarier. Finally, the atmosphere was definitely helped by the addition of a spot-on Phillip Glass organ, voice and piano score.

The movie stars Virginia Madsen, a woman whose voice I have heard a lot of in cartoons. She is a dogged academic trying to research urban legends and she gets intrigued by a killer known as Candyman. There is a joy and excitement in her performance early in the movie as she pursues stories and does the necessary research. She is joined by her research partner played by Kasi Lemmons. Now, usually it would not be important but Madsen is white and Lemmons is black. Candyman himself is also black (played by Tony Todd). So, the movie is about a white academic delving into black urban legends and quickly getting over her head. The acting really reflects that as Madsen happily acts clueless while Lemmons often acts as the voice of reason, trying to protect her oblivious white friend. We also have Vanessa Williams giving a great performance as a resident of the projects who provides them with more information. Madsen is perfect as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tony Todd is so great as Candyman. It takes a lot of charisma to be horror movie monster without something obscuring the face like a mask or a disfigurement. A handsome slasher is hard to pull off but this movie definitely did it.

Overall, I really liked the movie. I had been lead to believe that the movie was just another nineties slasher movie but it felt like a lot more than that. The movie was psychological in ways that I was not expecting. The story also had a bunch of twists that I did not fully expect. It also attempted to approach the subject of class and race differences, even including references to slavery. The same cultural power imbalance that led to places like Cabrini-Green being constructed and getting as bad as they have.

Green Room (2015)

October 27, 2017

95 minutes – Rated R for gore, racism, violence and extremely tense situations.

Authority is naturally pretty scary. The people who have power over us, even if we are the ones who gave them that power, have an enormous trust placed in them. We attempt to give them that trust but more importantly other people also place trust in them. There is an assumption that if somebody is in charge then they are doing the right thing. When that power is being abused, it can be difficult to convince other people that the abuse is really happening. Societies throughout history have been built on the principle of submission to authority because otherwise there can be chaos and anarchy. This is why people in charge only occasionally get caught for doing terrifying and inhuman things. They only rarely get caught because their victims are largely powerless. When the weight of authority is bearing down on you, nobody can help because they are already carrying their own weight. It happens every day and goes unpunished most of the time.

I love music but I have been to only a handful of concerts and I have been to even fewer clubs. Once I am there, I enjoy myself but it is hard to get out there. Crowds scare me a bit. Being alone in a crowd makes me tense. A person is usually a reasoning, compassionate human being. A crowd, while made up of these human beings, becomes its own animal which can turn crazy in an instant. A panicked crowd, an angry crowd, or even an excited crowd can be a violent force. I worry about being pushed down or trampled or lost and separated from whoever I am with. At sporting and pro-wrestling events, I definitely have been caught up in the crowd and I know how easy it is. You feel lonelier if you do not pick up on the group behavior. So, my experience with the music industry is an experience from a distance. For example, I love punk and heavy metal music but I recognize that these are the shows that can easily get too rowdy for me. I am content to listen to albums, watch music videos, and watch live performances on television. I know it is not the same but I feel more comfortable and less scared.

From the start, I could tell that this movie was shot really well. The lighting is pretty dark and gritty which is befitting a movie in the horror/thriller genres. Even scenes shot in the day seem to have a dark film over everything that gave me a foreboding sense as the movie headed towards the main event. As one would expect from a movie about a band, the sound is excellent. From the first mumbled lines to the cranked up concert speakers, everything is clear as a bell and just sounds super rich. The production values are great as everything looks gritty and real and they did a great job of creating this world just beyond our own. As I stated above, I love punk music but I was never part of the scene and this made me feel like I was right there in that world. I am a huge fan of horror movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street series which is almost in technicolor. It was nice to see another movie grounded in reality that also had production values grounded in reality. There was nowhere to escape to because this felt like the real world. The special effects and prosthetics were almost too real.

There is a lot of great acting in this. First, I have to start off with praise for Patrick Stewart who, for the first time in memory, plays a truly evil character. I have to respect a guy with range like that. This movie was also the last movie starring Anton Yelchin to be released before his death. He leads the protagonists and he is instantly likable. There is also Alia Shawkat (of Arrested Development fame) who does a great job as just another punk musician. Imogen Poots was great as a stranger girl who gets caught in the mix. I also really liked Eric Edelstein as a skinhead minion. He almost seemed reasonable until you remember that he is a skinhead. Yeah, this movie is about a bunch of punks who run afoul of a lot of Nazis. Skinheads are a super violent sub-culture/terrorist group and they make the perfect bad guys. The actors do a great job of making them human but strangely inhuman at the same time. They act perfectly reasonable and argue about stuff that normal people argue about but they are full of such alien hate. It is a story of gray characters getting terrorized by very black characters but there is nuance there.

Overall, I loved this movie. My first thought was that it felt kind of like a Nazi version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but it ended up being so much more. Of course, it has the same culture clash that Massacre has but there is so much more story and humanity to it. This was an intense movie that latched on and did not let go until a minute into the end credits. I definitely felt like I had been on a journey by the end of it. This movie really made me scared as well because of the rising Nazi sentiment in the United States. If the guys from this movie spread, we are screwed.

The Witches (1990)

October 25, 2017

92 minutes – Rated PG for body horror, macabre ideas, child murder, and dark themes.

I have said it before but Roald Dahl was a very big part of how my mind formed at a young age. He lived in an ugly world and the fiction he wrote reflected that. He lived in England throughout World War I in an almost Dickensian childhood. What was already a scary time for all classes, due to being in a war zone, was even scarier being a child. Despite that constant fear he experienced, he grew up and had kids of his own. He also fought in World War II and famously was sent on an expedition to the United States to do anything possible to get the US government to agree to enter the war. He somehow made it through the horrors of a war-torn childhood, English boarding schools, and combat in World War II among other things. He was able to take this darkness and put it into children’s literature which stood out against some of the more saccharine things I was offered as a kid. His books were always unsentimental and the child characters were put into real danger. As dark as things got, there was always some desperate hope present.

Body horror is when a character’s body is magically or mechanically transformed, degenerated, or destroyed. Usually, the altered person has to then live with these horrific changes. A milder example is the body changes seen throughout Beetlejuice. Not only the changes the Maitlins make to themselves but also the flattened civil service worker and the premature aging near the end of the movie. A more relevant set of examples begins with Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man slowly turns into an insect. That same thought was brought into the various versions of The Fly which has a definite science fiction bent to body horror. The real horrific example there is the version made by Cronenberg who is a true master of body horror. What scares me most about body horror is the loss of self. For better or for worse, I am who I am and I do not want anybody forcefully taking that away from me. The thought sickens me that I might lose myself through fate or somebody’s cruel machinations.

This was the last movie that was personally overseen by Jim Henson. It really shows. By 1990, Henson and his crew had really perfected their art. The movie is full of over the top costumes and special effects that are absolutely terrifying. However, the movie also has a lot of more subtle effects such as more realistic animal puppets. I was absolutely blown away by the mouse puppets and how well they switched between puppets and real mice. Also, they synced the dialog up so well. I love puppets and they really outdid themselves on this one. As for the other effects, they are full-blown body horror. The prosthetics and costumes for the witches are very well done. They are grotesque and absolutely something right out of a child’s nightmare. They look a lot like how I imagined they would look like from Dahl’s description and the illustrations. The transformations are frightening but so smooth that it’s hard not to admire them even as I am creeped out.

The casting was really good for this one. Roald Dahl was upset by some of the changes in the movie but the one thing that got him to accept this adaptation was the casting of Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. Huston always put out an absolutely magnetic performance. Here, she is so good at being evil and arrogant. Her performance often adds a menacing air of tension and others a fever pitch of insane evil where the change happens with the flip of a switch. This brilliant casting is backed by a mostly English cast. Mai Zetterling is great as the grandmother and former witch hunter, tasked with watching over her grandson. The movie is dominated by the voice of Jasen Fisher, who plays the traditional Dahl child hero. He is great at playing that pure-hearted kid who tries his best to do the right thing. Part of the ensemble is Rowan Atkinson who adds a lot of the comic relief as only a legendary comedian can.

Overall, I loved this movie. While much of it is not very scary, some of it is downright frightening. It is a great adaptation of a classic children’s novel. While there were changes, it was only to make the movie a little less scary than the book was. The book and the film are both parts of that older tradition of both scaring and delighting little children. While Dahl’s works are dark, they usually have at least a bittersweet ending.

The Love Witch (2016)

October 23, 2017

120 minutes – Unrated but I would rate it R for nudity, explicit sexuality, eerie atmosphere, and death.

Love is terrifying if literature and popular culture are to be believed. I have not felt romantic love yet but I have heard all of the stories. On the other hand, I have experienced crushes and physical attraction and they are definitely scary too. There is that moment when the chemicals kick in and I feel like I am losing mind. Like Madeleine Kahn, I feel the flames on the side of my face and I need to calm myself down. It is both a great and a horrible feeling at the same time. Kind of like taking an upper and a downer at the same time. Wires get crossed and things get confusing. Then comes the fear of indecision of whether to actually do something about it. It can be a maddening bag of emotions. That chaos can be terrifying as you stand on the precipice, wondering what comes next. I remember I once crushed hard on a woman much older than I was. I would see her several days a week. In fact, I would sit next to her. I both was both full of excitement and dread everytime we would meet.

We are all taught from a young age that confidence is a great thing to have. Of course, they are right. When I was a child, I had very little confidence and people often asked me why I was silent most of the time. Eventually, I found my courage and my voice and I am fine talking to people. Confidence drives us to go after what we want in life and also gives us the strength to protect what we have. However, as with all things, too much confidence can be a bad thing. Do you know who has unshakeable confidence? Serial killers. Serial killers cross the boundaries society set for the proper amounts of confidence. They are so sure of themselves that they feel that they are right no matter what. Killing people is no problem when you feel like you are right all of the time. Some of society’s rules definitely deserve to be challenged but murder is a boundary we do not want to cross.

The first thing that struck me about the movie is the excellent production design. Everything is just perfect looking. Everything in every scene has a purpose and fits together so well. That sort of thing is eerie. The real world (and most films) are messy and sloppy in some way. None of us match our outfit to the decor and there is almost always one or two things just a little out of place in our homes or apartments. The movie is a seventies technicolor throwback to a time where Wicca and magical cults were a big thing in the public’s imagination. The movie is full of that imagery. It is absolutely covered with pentagrams, daggers, nudity, men and women with capes, and all sorts of other strange images. The titular love witch always has portrait perfect makeup which I have never seen in real life outside of a fashion show. It adds to the overall creepy atmosphere of the movie. Everything but the witch looks fairly normal, put together but slightly imperfect. They also did a great job of filtering the footage so it looks like it comes from that time but still looks very clear. The movie has so many vibrant colors that sometimes almost hurt the eye which just adds to the madness.

The witch herself is played by Samantha Robinson and she is so awesome in this movie. Her voice is so alluring that it drew me in immediately. Her eyes are also striking and she spends a lot of time gazing deeply into the camera but I get the feeling she is not looking at the viewer but through them. The cadence of her speech is off, somewhat alien but not enough that she is completely out of place. She has a way of drawing the perfectly normal people around her into her weirdness. It makes her look incredibly powerful and magnetic and that in itself is scary. There is something dominant in her performance but it is unlike performances like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Scarlet Johannsen as Black Widow. It is somehow stronger and less vulnerable. Her inner monologue is so much fun to listen to but also, again, kind of frightening. To know what someone like her is really thinking is disturbing. The rest of the cast does a great job as the unwitting normal people this woman meets, victims or near misses.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent horror movie. The movie tackles the troubling themes of gender roles in today’s world through the lens of seventies culture. The patriarchy is a very real thing that is scarier than any monster we might see in a horror movie. Male dominance should not be a thing and most feminists (myself included) only want human equality and not female dominance. A lot of this movie is about women finding their power. However, these are issues that we continue to try and tackle and I was happy to see a horror movie address it in an intelligent way from a different angle.

 

(As a side note, this film had its US premiere in my hometown.)

Company of Wolves (1984)

October 20, 2017

95 minutes – Rated R for some gore, body horror, near constant dread and surprising sexual undertones.

Dreams can be very frightening. At least, the ones that I remember are usually very scary to me. I still remember very clearly several dreams I had when I was little where I was chased. One of them was a dream where I was lost in the woods and I came upon a civilization of purple-skinned people stuck in some sort of pre-colonial lifestyle. I stumbled upon the fact they ate humans and, of course, they chased me through the woods. I also clearly remember a dream where I was running from some sort of unseen monster but it was close behind. Along the way, I gathered up my mother and we ran to a barn. We climbed but the monster was so close behind and we went to zip line away but mom fell behind. Of course, I had a dream where I was attacked by a swarm of bees again and I woke up still feeling their stings all over my body in the form of a tingling sensation. The point is: dreams are so scary because our brain tricks us into thinking they are real. We believe so hard that it is hard to swim out of that alternate reality without completely jettisoning it, quickly forgetting what was bothering us.

There are also predators out there in the real world. I am sure you may have noticed but I identify deeply with the wolf but I know what I am. I am not a predator. I gravitate toward the image of the wolf because of my family history and for its positive traits of loyalty. However, I know that the wolf is also a creature that kills. If you work on a farm or camp out in the woods, a wolf is not a friendly, natural image. It is a danger that you must defend yourself against. In the city where I grew up, the worst you would encounter would be a mean dog or an aggressive rat. So when I went camping as a kid, I was terrified because I only had stories of wild predators. In the city, we had different predators we were warned about. Human predators. Stranger danger was something shouted from the rooftops by parents but I was an indoor kid for the most part so I never really feared getting snatched off the streets. When I got older and walked freely around Fells Point, I started to get a little more wary but the worst was somebody asking me if I had any cigarettes. Still, I knew that things could happen at any point.

The first thing that was clear while watching this movie was that this movie would have suffered greatly if the effects budget had been lower. Right off the bat there is a great mix of puppetry and live animals that immediately caught my eye. The puppetry was really unsettling but that was clearly intended. The lighting was really good. I have designed lighting for horror before and the light and shadow can really make or break a good story. The movie made really good use of shadow in particular. It gave the movie more of a Grimm’s fairytale feel. As we all know, those original tales are dark and full of thinly veiled, brutal lessons so shadow really suits this adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. Beyond that, the visual effects and camera tricks were absolutely brilliant and mind-bending. The makeup effects were really great as well, including really good fake blood. All of it added up to some really dark body horror that was literally like something out of a nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, the movie does such a good job of creating a world out of dream imagery. The world of the dream seems to have internal logic but, like Wonderland or The Labyrinth, things can come out of left field to change the story. There is a constant level of dread under every single scene so even the non-scary scenes had me a little worried. There are not a lot of jump scares, there is more psychological horror which seems to be a running theme this week. One of the themes is female sexuality and the fear of male sexuality and also the justified fear of the abuse of women by men. It reminded me of a fear that I did not have while I was growing up since I was a boy who did not have to worry so much about being mistreated in that way. This movie awoke a vicarious worry for women that I have thought about more in recent years. And yet, I know there are things that I cannot possibly protect the women in my life (and beyond) from. The movie did a good job of stirring up those societal fears in addition to fears of more literal wolves.

Overall, I thought this was a very good and chilling movie. While it was definitely not a traditional horror movie, it had a lot of horror elements mixed with fantasy elements. It definitely filled me with a feeling of horror at times. Its dreamlike, disjointed nature kept me guessing as to what might happen next even though I have read and seen so many other versions of Little Red Riding Hood. There was so much subtext in this movie that I felt like I was watching two movies at once at times.


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