Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Technology

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

OH, technology! In so many ways it makes life easier. But at the same time, it makes it a lot easier for a lot of things to go very wrong all at once. Quite often, I think that we should pay closer attention to the bad representations of technology in the movies, because every day it feels like we're getting closer and closer to the technological dystopias of many a sci-fi future. SUCH AS...

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer by day, super-hacker named Neo by night. He is obsessed with finding the answer to one of the hacker underground's most mysterious questions: "What is the matrix?" One day, he finally finds out: The matrix is a virtual reality computer program that surrounds him and everyone he knows, making them think the world of 1999 is real. In reality, it is much farther in the future, and the world is controlled by machines we created, who grow humans to harvest them for their energy, keeping them plugged in to the matrix to keep them subdued. And if you needed the synopsis to know what this movie is about, then you must be VERY young and/or living under a rock for the past long while, because The Matrix is one of the key texts of popular culture of the new millennium. Personally, this movie means a lot to me: It was the first R-rated movie I saw in the theater. The ground-breaking special effects still hold up, and the film is still as exciting as it ever was. It's a modern classic.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) Computer programmer Caleb wins a contest to have a week-long visit at the luxurious home of reclusive tech CEO Nathan Bateman. But when he gets there, he discovers he's not really there to relax and enjoy himself, but rather to help Nathan test his newest AI robot, Ava. Buoyed by incredibly strong performances by Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleason, and especially Alicia Vikander as Ava, Garland's talky screenplay teases out so many questions about artificial intelligence and the role technology plays in our daily lives, that it's almost mindblowing. It's never anything less than compelling, and constantly swerves away from where you think it's going to go. Just as the best sci-fi stories should.

Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2015) Social media is a bitch. I am so glad it wasn't around when I was in high school. Because having to deal with anything like what happens in Unfriended would drive me insane. Basically, a group of friends get together online (via Skype) a year after one of their childhood friends committed suicide after a horrendously embarrassing video of her went viral. A mysterious, unknown individual ends up on their call somehow, and they can't get rid of them. And then the mystery entity starts taking revenge on each of the friends for their role in the suicide. And it's all seen from the perspective of one computer screen.  This method makes the film surprisingly immersive (you can see internet history and file contents that fill in character background), but the nature of the story unfortunately means that not a single one of these characters are likable. Some of the jump scares do work pretty well, though.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Week Two

It's the second week of my 31 Days of Horror for 2018! We got a little bit scarier this week, and I saw a couple of classics for the first time. Let's dive in, shall we?

Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983) So notorious that I had the ending spoiled for me a while back, but it still managed to surprise me. The story of a shy orphan who goes to summer camp for the first time, where killings start happening around her, this isn't exactly a subtle film. To the film's credit, it only half-heartedly tries to play coy about the killer (it's pretty fucking obvious from the jump), but it has THAT twist up its sleeve. The film gains a weird sort of authenticity from casting actual teenagers in the roles of the campers, regardless of their acting ability, and for most of the movie, it's not a horror movie at all, preferring to just hang out with these characters at summer camp. But then, we get to the end, and the film drops this ridiculously huge, film-altering twist, and then promptly freezes the frame and rolls the credits. It's a hell of a way to end things, and turns Sleepaway Camp into something much more than your average slasher: it becomes a heartfelt movie about teenage sexuality and the identity issues of adolescence. And the fact that I can say any of that about a crappy low-budget '80s slasher is kind of amazing, even if it's also kind of dire on the matter of, ya know, actual filmmaking craft.

The Stepfather (Jospeh Ruben, 1987) More of a slow-burn thriller than a true horror movie, but it does have Terry O'Quinn giving a performance for the ages as the titular character. The opening scene is also stellar (and not just because it gives us young Terry O'Quinn in the buff!), telling us everything we need to know about this character: He's fastidious, and crazy, and killed every single member of his family before shaving his face and leaving to go start another life. That life eventually leads to marrying a new woman with a teenage daughter, Stephanie, who doesn't like her new stepfather but can't quite put her finger on why... until she sees him become unhinged in the basement. It's a pretty rote thriller, but it gives us a heroine who is very easy to root for, and O'Quinn is really magnetic in the role, earning his legendary status as one of the all-time great movie psychos.

Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016) A deaf woman is terrorized by a masked killer stalking her home in the woods. That's it. And from that simple premise, director Flanagan and writer/star Kate Siegel proceed to wrack our nerves for just over an hour. John Gallagher, Jr. is perfect as the eerily calm killer, but Siegel is the star of the show, and she is a heroine for the ages - smart and resourceful but relatably, painfully human. It's an impossible situation - how can a deaf woman gain the upper hand against someone who can hear? - and we are helpless to do anything to help her as she runs through every option available. Hush is tight as a drum, and does a near-flawless job of putting us in the protagonist's POV, even when we can hear what's going on.

Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988) Little Andy Barclay is obsessed with the Good Guys TV show/toys. All he wants for his birthday is a Good Guy doll, who moves its head, blinks its eyes, and says four phrases! Unfortunately, his shopgirl mother wasn't able to save enough money to get one... but finds a peddler in a back alley who sells her one for cheap. Unfortunately, this particular doll happens to be the one that the Lake Shore Strangler (Charles Lee Ray, "Chucky" to his friends) did a bit of voodoo magic on before he died. His soul is now in the doll, and he is out for revenge against the cop who killed him and his partner who abandoned him. No lie, Andy is one of the most annoying children in movie history, so when Chucky starts going after him, I wasn't entirely opposed to it. The film might have been better if it had stuck with the original idea, where it wasn't clear from the get-go that the doll is evil. But as it is, Child's Play is still plenty entertaining. It's maybe the most '80s movie I've ever seen, in terms of cultural signifiers, themes, and the overall visual look, which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this as a child of the '80s. The other big thing is Brad Dourif's performance as Chucky. When combined with the design of the doll, it makes for a perfect horror movie villain, making the fact that this became a long-standing franchise not at all surprising.

The Babysitter (McG, 2017) Young Cole is awkward and quiet and scared. He's bullied at school, but in the eyes of his hot babysitter, Bee, he's cool. and because of that, he may be falling in love with her. So he decides to stay up late one night to see what she gets up to after he goes to bed. And what he sees is her and her friends kill another boy as a sacrifice for a satanic ritual. And they need his blood to complete the ritual. This horror-comedy leans HARD on the comedy, and it's a lot of fun even if the constant stylistic flourishes reek a bit of desperation. It's fast and fun, with several hilarious comic performances. And Samara Weaving makes Bee one of the most likable Satanists ever portrayed on screen. Plus, she has FANTASTIC hair.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - The Dark/Night

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Clever theme title this week! I have to admit, but biggest fear, still to this day, is being alone in the dark. It's not as crippling a fear as it used to be, thankfully. When I was younger, it could take me hours to go to sleep in my own bed because of how scared I was of the darkness. The darkness is the unknown, it obscures what we know and twists it into something other. It can be difficult for movies to truly capture that, since a large part of the experience of watching a movie is... ya know...being able to see what's going on. But these movies do a good job of capturing the terror of the darkness and nighttime.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, et. al., 1937) In a deviation from my usual modus operandi, this whole movie isn't about this week's topic, or even mostly about this week's topic. BUT, the sequence above is about as perfect a depiction of being surrounded by darkness as it gets - it shows very artistically and VERY effectively how in the dark, things become something far more sinister than what they actually are, and how everything - EVERYTHING - has eyes that seem to follow you as you get more and more lost. This was the first thing I ever remember seeing in a movie that well and truly scared me.

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) Sometimes, it's not about the things that surround you in the dark, but the darkness itself. The absence of anything, the inability to see beyond a few inches in front of you. No movie I've seen captures that feeling quite like The Blair Witch Project, which made my entire family so afraid of the dark that after seeing it, it took all four of us to bring one garbage can from our garage to the end of our driveway. By now, everyone knows the story of the three student filmmakers making a documentary in the woods of Maryland who disappeared, leaving only this footage behind (and how the marketing was so effective that many people believed it actually was a documentary). It basically created the "found footage" genre, and has all the positive and negatives one associates with films of that ilk. But as with so many trendsetters, it became famous for a reason, and that reason is that Blair Witch gets down and dirty with our fear of the dark, and what unknowns lurk just beyond our sight and our grasp. And because it knows that when shit hits the fan, most of us wouldn't serve up a clever quip and stand our ground; we'd curse to high heaven and run like hell.

Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016) One of the movies I've seen as part of my 31 Days of Horror this year, and specifically with this week's theme in mind! I don't think I would have survived seeing this in the theater, although honestly the 2013 short that it's based on is maybe better. But that's only because in service of making an entire feature, there had to be, ya know, a story to build the concept around. And the story, which is a metaphor for depression, is a bit too obvious and the film sort of runs the metaphor into the ground. BUT. The scary scenes, dealing with the ghostie who only appears in darkness, are SCARY. Had I seen this when I was younger, there would have been NO WAY I would have been able to sleep with the lights out, which is surely the exact reaction the film was going for.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Week 1

I'll be honest: I'm not really a horror guy. I've never done well with blood and guts and gore, and when I was a highly nightmare-prone kid I had MAJOR issues with anything even remotely scary.

So I stayed away from horror films for a long time. Creepy, I could deal with okay, but anything really scary was a hard pass, especially if it was a slasher movie. But eventually, I grew up and got smarter about movies and started to enjoy the ones that were good at scaring you. I appreciated the roller coaster ride those films can take you on, the way they build and release tension. I started to "get" the idea of watching them and enjoying the adrenaline rush and the catharsis good horror films can bring about. And I've been trying to watch more of them.

This year, I finally decided to try to commit to the whole "31 Days of Horror" thing that many in the film blogosphere do. My schedule makes it a bit tough, but I'm doing okay so far, and I plan to, if not watch exactly one film a day, then to at least get very close to it. And I plan on doing weekly round-ups of the films I watch, since I REALLY don't have the time for full-length reviews.

Here's what I've been watching in the first week of my 2018 31 Days of Horror, in order of my watching them (titles are linked to trailers where I could find them).

The House With a Clock in its Walls (Eli Roth, 2018) I remember really enjoying this book (illustrated by the famous Edward Gorey) when I was a kid, and this doesn't quite capture the gothic grandeur of it, but it seems to be going for more of the magic/fantasy angle than the horror one. The story takes place in the '50s, where young orphan Lewis Barnavelt is moving in with his estranged uncle, Jonathan. Turns out, Jonathan and his neighbor Florence Zimmerman, are magic users, and Lewis's new home used to belong to a very, very bad warlock, who magically placed a clock somewhere in the walls of the house. That clock is counting down to something not good, and Lewis, Jonathan, and Ms. Zimmerman may be the only ones who can stop it. Aside from the delicious production design, and genial approximation of the feel of great kiddie horror flicks from the '80s, the main reason to see this is the chemistry between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, who are having an infectious good time with this. It's enjoyable, and has some good kiddie-sized scares, but that's about as far as it goes.

The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2016) Eden and her husband David are having a dinner party. Among the invitees are her ex Will and his girlfriend Kira, and their whole former friend group, none of whom have seen much of Eden or Will in the two years since their son died and they split up. Long-simmering resentments and private hang-ups eventually explode as two new people show up, who are Eden and David's friends from some retreat called "The Invitation". And from there, things just get weirder and weirder. The tension simmers for the first three-quarters and boils over spectacularly in the last fifteen minutes or so. The careful character work of the actors (and the vicious screenplay) twists our allegiances to different characters every few minutes, never knowing who is more reasonable or trustworthy. It's not even really horror for most of it, just a taut, twisted character study. But when that last act hits... MAN does it deliver the goods.

Creep (Patrick Brice, 2015) Aaron, in desperate need of cash, answers an online ad for a day-long filming job that only requires him to drive a long way and bring his camera. But when he meets Josef, the man who placed the ad, it slowly becomes clear that something isn't right. Another one where for the majority of the running time it's more of a character study than anything else, Bryce effectively weaponizes the first-person camera to stage some terrific jump scares, and he and Mark Duplass have a great dynamic together. The end is truly horrifying, but the film doesn't utilize the cat-and-mouse games that are its best asset nearly enough. More of that and this would have been truly amazing. As it is, it's just a pretty neat idea, pretty well-executed.

Dressed to Kill (Brian DePalma, 1980) NOW we're talking! The opening sequence of this, featuring Angie Dickinson in a museum, is just stellar - a nearly nine-minute sequence with almost no dialogue. And then that woman with the razor shows up and slashes the movie into high gear. It's all a pretty overt Hitchcock homage (so overt that Hitch himself called it "fromage" instead), but it's a damn good one, updating Hitch's pet themes and tricks to a current setting and going even more dark and twisted. I don't want to give away too much of the film's plot, because it's a really fun ride that is best experienced as cold as possible. It's a nasty piece of work, and isn't exactly good for LGBTQ issues (especially at the time), but as with most of DePalma's films, it's super stylish and a hell of a ride.

Boo! A Madea Halloween (Tyler Perry, 2016) In case it wasn't already clear, yes, I'm working my way up to the scarier stuff. This one is MUCH more of a comedy than I was expecting, focusing mainly on putting the core group of old people together and letting them bounce off of each other. And I'll admit: I laughed. I laughed more than I probably should have. There's more than a hint of minstrelsy to Perry's Madea, but... when they have an extended conversation about literally beating some sense into today's teenagers, their commitment to the bit and how far they go over the top is HILARIOUS. The basic story is that one Halloween night, Madea has been called upon by her nephew to keep an eye on his seventeen year-old daughter Tiffany, to make sure she doesn't go to a local frat party. Naturally, Madea brings along her best friend Bam, her brother Joe, and their friend Hattie. Tiffany sneaks out, but when Madea calls the cops on the frat party, Tiffany enlists her friends and the fraternity brothers to play some good old-fashioned Halloween fright pranks on the old folks. It's not great. The horror elements are well-done but bland, and Madea freaking out and punching the thing that scares her in the face can only save it so many times (although to be fair, it works FAR more often than it should). It's nice to have a horror-comedy that leans more on the comedy side, but a few more legit scares would have gone a long way.

House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960) The first of eight films Roger Corman made adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe, this one based on the short story "The Fall of the House of Usher". It is about a brother and sister who are the last of the Usher family. Brother Roderick believes the family bloodline to be cursed, and will not let sister Madeline marry her betrothed, who has come to the Usher estate to bring her home with him. I love a good Gothic, and HOO BOY this is one. Heavy with atmosphere, gorgeous production and costume design, with lies and secrets as thick as the fog that chokes the crumbling house where the action takes place. It's never more deliriously over the top than in a mid-film dream sequence that just knocks everything out of the park. This is the most subdued I've ever seen Vincent Price, and the thing often does feel as airless as that house surely must, but this sort of thing is so right up my alley that I didn't much care.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Home Invasion

Written as part of the weekly blogathon series hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Thankfully, I have never had my home broken in to. Knock on wood, of course, as I don't want to ever have such a thing happen. It's a truly terrible thing to have happen, a deep, personal invasion that can leave lasting effects. Thankfully, we have movies that allow us to get catharsis in watching others go through this horror, and also perhaps give us some lessons on what to do - or, more likely, what NOT to do - should we ever find ourselves in this trying situation.

The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008) From the simplest of set-ups (a couple in crisis, a house in a remote location, three masked assailants), Bertino creates a masterpiece of creeping dread and steadily-mounting terror. There are jump scares in The Strangers, but the things that stay with you aren't the things that make you scream. Instead, it's the moments of quiet, where a masked figure appears deep in the background, or other moments where the tension is so thick that you just want to yell at the characters to TURN AROUND or move to the left instead of the right... so many moments where safety is just inches, seconds away, but there's nothing to be done. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, as the couple whose home gets invaded, are so believable as a couple on the verge of breaking up that you're even more invested in them as people when things start to go south and they come closer together. Which makes the whole thing even sadder in the end.

Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002) Sure, some of the visual effects haven't exactly aged well, but everything else about Fincher's crackerjack thriller works like gangbusters. When Mom Jodie Foster and diabetic Daughter Kristen Stewart move into a Manhattan brownstone, they don't even get one night's rest before they find themselves trapped in the house's panic room, a steel-and-concrete-reinforced room that should protect them in the event of a home invasion... but the three thieves who show up include an employee of the security company that built and installed the panic room... and the separate phone line in the room hasn't been activated yet. Originally slated to star Nicole Kidman, who aggravated an injury from Moulin Rouge! and had to drop out, causing Foster to step in. Naturally, with Foster involved, her part was rewritten to emphasize the character's strength and similarities to her daughter. I can't help but think that this was all for the best, despite wanting very much to see what the Kidman version would have looked like.

When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979) By far one of the best (and scariest) opening sequences in all cinema, Carol Kane's babysitter finds herself terrorized by increasingly threatening phone calls asking if she has "checked the children". That's it, but this scene is brutally terrifying in the best way, a brilliant combination of lighting, editing, sound, and score. To say nothing of Kane's performance, brilliantly showing a smart, resourceful woman slowly fraying at the seams. The rest of the film is a bit dull, as it turns into a police procedural... until the terrifying conclusion!