Don’t give me that look. I know it’s been a long time since I updated. People have got married since then. Presidents elected. Christmases celebrated! Here’s my way of making amends. A rundown of horror movies I sped through in the Halloween season, beginning with the long-awaited Kill List, which I finally got to see in all its grainy BBC camera glory. Without further ado…
Kill List – I desparately wanted to love this, after months of hype, grandiloquent comparisons to the classics, and a barrage of superlatives blurted out by critics groping for a perfect analysis. I was quick on the draw and devoured director Ben Wheatley’s feature debut, Down Terrace, immediately, hoping for a taste of things to come. Needless to say, I was slightly crestfallen. Though I can see the value in Down Terrace as a mashup of crime and family drama, the street violinist to Scorsese’s mob operas, I wasn’t expecting something so, well, cheap. Parts of it gripped, but the overwhelming feeling was of fear and embarrassment, watching the immature, bullied adult son of a career criminal foam at the mouth toward his lush, tantrum-immune parents. All fine and good, I guess, but nothing like the prevailing impression left upon me by Kill List. It wanders a delirious gray England, at every turn prompting the knee-jerk argument of real versus imagined. But I feel like studying it that way is a waste of time, and it reduces the movie to a game that Wheatley doesn’t want to play. Bits of ambiguity are sprinkled about that test our deductive powers, but it’s all to serve the greater purpose of disorienting us as much as possible. Jay and Gal, Wheatley’s muses, are the most uncinematic of hitmen: nearing the top of the hill, overweight, crass, and prone to outbursts of immature violence. They are plunged – as movie characters are – into a surreal world that threatens their grip on reality, one inexplicable scenario after another, as if they’re part of a play and they haven’t read a line of the script. People have information on them that they think is impossible to know. Their slippery employer extracts a blood oath from an unready Jay. But beyond that it gets even weirder. For one, their marks welcome them dutifully and gratefully, and early on a dead pet is strung up on the front porch. Like most other reviewers, I just want to end there. Kill List has its twists and turns, but giving away anything even in its first five minutes feels like a spoiler. Wheatley directs with a steady expectation for improvisation, following a script that closely follows Jay through a working man’s ordinary behavior. His trust toward his actors is best shown in two ways. Most obviously when the end credits reveal that many dialogue scenes were improvised, and more subtly through his lack of shooting gymnastics. Indie cinema has a godawful habit of hard zooming on people’ expressions, expecially for reaction shots (the worst offender being Rachel Getting Married. Also see any CIA situation room scene in the second two Bourne movies for its original popularizing use), all for the sake of a more documentarian feel. But not only is it distracting and hard to look at, it’s offensive to the audience, the script, and the actors, when the camera practically yells “look at the emotion!” Wheatley leaves that alone. He’s got his BBC-grade cameras and utilizes shaky cam to an extent, but it’s only a slight tremor compared to most indies. The material strives for much more in his hands. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley put a great amount of work into their characters. Maskell’s lazy, smug Jay and Smiley’s slovenly Gal form a nice friendship rooted in combat and their subsequent trade. A job gone wrong in Kiev is their ‘Nam, but beyond the hints of PTSD, Jay is struggling to regain a sense of pride and purpose, and Gal, surprisingly, comes off as a hound who longs for a quiet home life, tucking Jay’s son into bed one night during a row between Jay and wife Shel, and getting too close to Shel on one occasion for Jay’s comfort. As for Shel, she’s played with unnerving ferocity by Neil Marshall alum MyAnna Buring, an icy Swedish spitfire who could do Jay and Gal’s work ten times over before breakfast. The movie mesmerizes, hard cutting from portraits of family bonding to outbursts of ear-spitting domestic strife, descending into disconcerting episodes of mystery and violence from the streets and meadows of suburban England. I have yet to see Wheatley’s Sightseers, currently ushering in the high praises, and I’m anxiously awaiting A Field in England, his starring vehicle for Michael Smiley (the immortal Tyres from Spaced), which promises to be even more enigmatic and hopefully as unsettling as Kill List. Wheatley will make his way to Hollywood someday, but if that meeting goes the way I hope, it ends with two fingers being stuck up at a shiny black suit and tie.
Midnight Meat Train – If your nose is scrunching up at the “body horror” combo, the gruesome ideas your mind is trying to flick away are guaranteed to be subpar in comparison to Clive Barker’s visions. It’d be one thing if this film was inherently low budget and grubby like slasher flicks of yore, but its slick production is punctuated by over-choreographed effects shots and color correction that are too lovingly applied to a disgusting tableux of gore, suggesting the coolheadedness of an overengineered Saw movie. Like with war, horror isn’t good when it looks good. I can imagine the shouts of “awesome!” or “nasty!” emanating from the editing suite when it was made, and although leagues away from the gratuitousness of Braindead, that makes me feel a little queasy. Still, it tells an effectively sordid tale that isn’t afraid to “go there,” I guess you could say, puts stars through their paces before they were stars, casts Vinnie Jones as Vinnie Jones, and although not to my taste, it is dressed up impressively considering its miniscule budget. Oh, and as a last note, for God’s sake, someone find Leslie Bibb a romantic comedy or something.
House of the Devil – No jolting prelude, half seen flashback or flashforward. Not even based on a true story. Just a brief pseudo-fact about a decades-old moral panic over the occult, just in case anyone who comes across House of the Devil doesn’t know what’s in store. It may also be to reassure viewers that a fan will invariably be hit by the shit, after nearly an hour of buildup that will, will, test most levels of patience. Anyway, my point is that director Ti West, who’s fashioned a tribute to cheap, early VHS-period shockers with all their impecunious trappings, refuses to bow to horror’s innovations, because, as is most obvious by the very existence of House of the Devil, those innovations have done nothing for the genre but to remind fans of how good it used to be. Its threadbare plot follows Jocelin Donahue’s needy college student Samantha as she clambers to secure quick cash for her recently acquired apartment. Pertinently for a horror movie, she’s portrayed as a virginal twiglet, driven from her dorm by a skanky roommate, and inquires first and foremost about a babysitting job. Six guesses what house she ends up at. It would be no surprise to learn that the entirety of the film was shot over the weekend, given that it’s aiming to mimic the on-the-fly production of a trashy schlockfest. It wears its budget on its sleeve, proudly displaying its baseness with superiority over the polished horror movies of today, which adds to the fun, realizing how enjoyable a movie can be even if it’s not in hi def, and how much more personal it can feel, side by side with Samantha. I do believe it would be less memorable without an eerie turn from Tom Noonan as the impeccably mannered house-(of the devil)-owner. The way he diverts the conversation from Samantha’s misapprehensions about the forthcoming evening with a gentle, creasy smile makes him stand out from most all other horror villains, shading him with nuance but smartly without exaggerated panache. His soft spoken scenes are the best in the movie, barring Samantha’s pure 80s-era dance through the house once she’s left alone. It’s old fashioned in its thrills and construction, and when the lights dim on Samantha, we’re in the black til the bitter end. Personally I loved the buildup, so if you can make it through the first half hour or so, the rewards are manifold.
The Innkeepers – Trading on the success of the slowly unfolding House of the Devil, Ti West is given license to make a present-day slow burner without exploiting the gimmickry of his throwback debut. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are its two leads, aimless twenty-somethings manning reception at the Yankee Pedlar Inn for its final days. It’s surely the only job either has ever worked. Determined to finish her tenure with some sense of achievement, Paxton’s restless Claire proposes a marathon stakeout to collect evidence of the Inn’s resident ghost. West finds a new facet to the typical ghost story as peculiar guests arrive, including a shockingly older (this says more about my generation’s age than hers) but very dignified Kelly McGillis as a seminar psychic. Claire and Healy’s blase Luke are so relatable as the coworkers you actually liked from your part-time days that it’s heartbreaking to know they’re also the ones who’ve reached their peak and who you’ll never see again in the next step in life. Also heartbreaking is watching the older, homely Luke suffer Claire’s disinterest, most pointedly when they loosen up with cheap beer and he agonizes over some easy affection. Though Claire is without makeup and hard pressed to bother caring about her appearance, she’s still a beauty, and it’s obvious how long he’s watched her from afar. For a ghost story, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and achingly familiar in addition to being effectively spooky, and the finale will goad you into rewatching. Like West’s debut, it may be a bit slow and uneventful for some, but it comes highly recommended.
Eden Lake – this one’s struck a chord with folks in Jolly Old, where roving bands of psychotic kiddies are apparently the norm. It strikes me only as another mediocre example of the common (wo)man pushed over the edge. Michael Fassbender and girlfriend Kelly Reilly go on holiday to his childhood stomping grounds, where they’re set upon by an odious bunch of little shits. Fassbender can’t let a rabid dog lie, consequently leading to a string of sloppy, shifting-in-your-seat assaults as our heroes run for the city lights. Nothing like French chiller Them, whose malevolent little wights terrorize a couple for the least understood reasons, Eden Lake is busy making observations about manhood, teen behavior, role models, and mob mentality. The gang’s sulky leader isn’t shudder-inducing at all, just incredibly infuriating. Our gaze is shoved into the reluctant faces of his wee accomplices, who of course do nothing. We’re just meant to watch the work of this sadist, a pseudo-Jack from Lord of the Flies. Worst of all, the poor embattled couple share many other horror characters’ judgment in assuming once they’ve run out of sight of their pursuers, they’re out of danger. Eden Lake really only works as a warm up to the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, High Tension, Wolf Creek, Martyrs, or The Descent, (or whatever else have you) with Kelly Reilly playing the put-upon leading lady admirably going through the wringer.
Black Christmas – There’s something about the way this movie takes its time that is so disconcerting. We never get a clear shot of the killer, whose POV we frequently share in a pioneering innovation on Psycho. We’re only offered context clues to piece together his identity, and they don’t paint a pretty picture. Most of the action is limited to a sorority with him lurking in the attic, having chosen the house probably because it’s full of pretty girls and he’s insane. We wait quite patiently for the inevitable revelation that the killer’s pervy phone calls are originating from inside the house, making this Formula Zero for all subsequent movies about teens getting picked off one by one. It is a bit of a shame when Margot Kidder’s foul-mouthed boozehound buys it, though, and it’s actually kind of a pleasant surprise that we witness no final showdown or, in fact, any resolution at all. Classified as a slasher classic, it takes many cues from haunted house stories, substituting a poltergeist for a flesh and blood maniac, becoming a slasher flick with nowhere to run, and a ghost story without the false scares of a room-to-room investigation. Much more of a mood piece than a nailbiter.
Rosemary’s Baby – I lucked out; Empire just listed this as their latest masterpiece for profile, so I had a more erudite refresher to bring this one back to me. As they surmised, I found this to be a trascendant horror movie, seeping its primal, malodorous thrills into a conventional story. It plays more like your typical thriller, littered with clues that lead our embattled heroine down a daffy route to a last minute reveal. But instead of unveiling political corruption or a terrorist plot, her mission is of the supernatural variety. Director Roman Polanski seems to understand the level of ridiculousness he’s playing at, for as well as it is rooted in reality, its cast of villains is hilariously demented and dementedly good-natured. As absolute as the evil Rosemary encounters is, it’s manifested in the most pedestrian of ways: paunchy, well-to-do East Coast gossips and retirees. WWII child Polanski finds the upper crust adopting evil as its religion and impressing others into its fold through the pushy hospitality of Minnie Castevet. Only when Mia Farrow’s vulnerable waif resists, they resort to drugging and brainwashing to get their way. The direction is polished, the script only slightly contrived (re-arranging letters in a person’s name to reveal their true identity? really?); it’s a fine, perfectly gathered Polanski experience, and does the same service to horror that Chinatown did for the PI noir.
Detention – is the most contemporary movie I’ve ever seen. Characters break the fourth wall, quote Judd Apatow movies (which already quote dozens of movies on their own), and spend every second quipping and snarking. What’s their greatest concern? Image! It’s a ribbing comedy made at teenagers, for teenagers, by a guy who’s made a living directing music videos (and Torque, which he’s also game to razz). With his pedigree, Joseph Kahn perfectly storyboards a near feature-length sugar rush, weaving in time travel and a serial killer while commenting on the intertwining of identity and the march of time, which he celebrates with impressive callouts to forgotten 90s pop culture. Somehow it doesn’t get under your skin, even as its energy level and focus shifts every 2-4 minutes, or about as long as a single pop song. (hmm…) It may look like a lot of other crap, but Detention is witty and loads more inventive than most fare, to the extent that it becomes even too dense. Josh Hutcherson and Shanley Caswell do a great job staying on the right side of the joke, and it’s nice to see a director in America handling a camera as deftly as the Wrights (Joe and Edgar) from England. Now if Kahn can just get a script with a little more depth than Torque.
Pontypool – Its subject matter, setting, and script all make Pontypool the only horror movie I know that would be equally enjoyed on stage. Ostensibly a zombie movie, it zooms its lens in on a radio station in small town Pontypool, Ontario, where news of a growing menace is conveyed via a series of disturbing reports from across town. It makes an alteration to the zombie genre that is magnificently imagined, and much more gratifying than simpler twists made on the genre. It is safe to say, however, that it’d be nothing without the performances or claustrophic direction. Stephen McHattie as sorrow-drowning, has-been shock jock Grant Mazzy wields facial expressions with absolute gusto as he grows increasingly befuddled by hysterical callers. His voice alone is mesmerizing, reciting lengthy speeches written in acid trip articulation with a veteran DJ’s cadence of improvisation and force in his smoky drawl. Just as strong but more put together are Lisa Houle as the slightly haggard station manager who is just looking to please her folksy listeners, and Georgina Reilly as a dependable technician who shies away from the former two’s bickering but responds eagerly to the growing agitation. McHattie keeps Mazzy’s weary frazzlement in check, on the same wavelength as the audience, avoiding a dissolution into total paranoia, and the script keeps the material fresh. For a movie that draws out a single conflict of guessing and guessing, it’s handled lightly and progresses briskly. Viewers hoping for zombie carnage will be disappointed that it stays buckled up in build-up mode without culminating in a visceral payoff, but those who may appreciate a more scholarly approach to the booming zombie topic will be happy when they reach the end.
The Burrowers – great Friday night movie. Character actors are doing their thing, and without a clear cut lead role, you get to relish in their trade. Clancy Brown and William Mapother are welcome faces in a largely unknown cast that fill all the familiar roles. There’s the dandy cavalry officer. The grizzled frontiersman. His weathered partner. The naive farmhand. Where the film succeeds is in shaking up the alliance of these cliched roles. Rather than kowtowing to the impulses of stereotypes, the characters set aside differences to work toward common ends, finding a deeper level of consciousness to inhabit, giving the actors a more rounded approach to the material. They don’t go to lengths to pick fights, they don’t get under each other’s skin just for the hell of it. It’s a nice reprieve, watching a movie that doesn’t think I demand outbursts of soap operatics and “human” drama driven by selfish characters who are no more interesting to me than reality TV contestants. No, the story works because it moves them to act in spite of their cliched motivations, so the story finds its footing in events beyond their petty differences. The movie’s monsters share the screen like any other supporting character, are admirably hidden from view, and are never leaned upon for narrative weight or cheap thrills. They’re just there, and for that reason they work splendidly in a fully imagined frontier, as one of many dangers. It also doesn’t hurt that their method of dispatch is more gruesome than most other cinema evils I can think of. The movie’s biggest weakness is its dour attitude, likely adopted to reflect modern guilt over western expansion and malfeasance toward Natives, as personified by Doug Hutchison’s fussy prick of a commander. Bit of a shame since it could’ve sprinkled a liberal amount of comedy in for good measure, but it plays the material straight, adopting a spaghetti western approach rather than a, uh, Tremors II approach. But, I guess you just can’t set a schlocky B-movie during something like the Holocau- oh hey, Quentin Tarantino.
I shall return. To discuss God knows what. Graves’s I, Claudius most likley. Maybe Allen’s Manhattan. We’ll know when we get there. All I can tell you is that where we’re going, we don’t need roads.