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2008

Movie Review – Sauna (2008)

Movie Review – Sauna (2008)

The year is 1595. After a decades-long war between Sweden and Russia a joint team of representatives from both monarchies are trekking through Finland to mark the border between the two powers. The Swedes are led by two brothers, the younger Knut (Tommi Eronen) – a gentle, hopeful scholar – and Eerik (Ville Virtanen), a veteran of the conflict whose body is betraying him with age and who is finding it difficult to transition from bloodthirsty soldier to peacetime diplomat. As the Russian Semenski says to Eerik, “You are scared of peace, because the end of war will take away the justification for the murders that you have on your conscience.” He is haunted by his past misdeeds in ways which seem to manifest on their journey, especially as the team comes across a remote, uncharted village with a mysterious sauna on its periphery.

“What if Hell is not a fiery furnace beneath the continents?” one of the Russians asks, “What if it’s just an unclean place without the presence of God? A time and place behind God’s back?”

Sauna 2008 still

Finland’s Sauna (2008), directed by Antti-Jussi Annila, unfolds within this fantastic historical backdrop. Themes of conflict permeate the film, with Eerik often serving as the volatile nexus, be they between nations, religions, the past and the future, or, as suggested by the sauna, salvation and damnation. The cinematography is gorgeous. The muted colors and intimate camerawork serve to bring the characters and era to life. All of the actors, but particularly Virtanen and Eronen, are well-cast. Virtanen especially evokes Max von Sydow’s crusading knight in Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant The Seventh Seal (1957).

The film tackles many themes and has some truly striking images, but its messages and meanings are largely not forthcoming. Sauna is more like a puzzle box which we know does not have all the pieces in it, but has just enough to give us some kind of picture. The filmmaker leaves many elements open to interpretation – particularly the ending – making the experience a surreal, almost Expressionist one, and one that the viewer is likely to mull over days after watching. Its approach is heavily atmospheric and psychological, relying upon various forms of symbolism to convey many of its plot points. Viewers would be wise to pay close attention to the dialogue and images so as not to miss potentially vital information.

Sauna is not a film for all horror fans. It’s a contemplative, patient film with very few jump scares, and it is purposefully enigmatic, perhaps frustratingly so to viewers who want clear answers from the movies they watch. However, it’s the sort of film that gives hope to discerning viewers that the genre still has new places to go and filmmakers willing to take the journey to go there.

Grade: B

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Movie Review – Pontypool (2008)

Movie Review – Pontypool (2008)

“Pontypool. Pontypool. Panty pool. Pont de Flaque. What does it mean?… In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other. It’s a ripple effect. So, what does it mean? Well… it means something’s going to happen. Something big. But then, something’s always about to happen.”

Pontypool (2008) is a Canadian horror film written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, and directed by Bruce McDonald. Inspired by Orson Wells’ 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which infamously caused (likely overstated) panic in its unsuspecting audience, Burgess’s story was produced as both a feature film and as a radio play. A fresh take on the zombie narrative, the movie takes place almost entirely in a make-shift radio station during a snow storm, as a recently fired shock jock tries to adjust to his new gig as a small town disc jockey. Played perfectly by Stephen McHattie, Grant Mazzy is gruff and resentful toward his perceived demotion, but has such a mastery of linguistics due to his job that as the virus spreads via language (specifically English) words for him have become already so malleable as to be meaningless that he alone can keep a clear head. His producer, Syndey, is played by Lisa Houle (McHattie’s wife). We see little of the horror but rather hear it through phone calls and broadcasts, and we have to piece together the puzzle along with the characters.

Pontypool still 2008

Unlike many other Canadian horror movies, Pontypool wears its maple stains clearly on its sleeve and pulls its narratives from that country’s unique experiences. We see themes of language duality in a country with two official languages and of the perceived disparate statuses that both languages appear to hold. The three main characters we see, residents of Ontario, are Anglophones whose knowledge of French is meager. We here of French separatists and a radio transmission which seeks to save only those who can understand French.

The film plays heavily with the notion that truth is subjective. Throughout the first half of the film the characters cannot determine if what they’re hearing is real, a hoax, or a misunderstanding. They’re reluctant to take things at face value, as they’re largely in the business of illusion. Their traffic reporter’s “Sunshine Chopper” is actually a van on a hill. Sydney knows the small town’s secrets but helps to keep up the appearance of normalcy. Words, too, are given deep examination. Their meanings can have profound effects on us, and as Mazzy demonstrates, sometimes talking – taking the diplomatic approach – can be more effectual than physical force.

Pontypool is one of those “bottle movies” – predominately taking place in a single location – for which I have a great fondness (other examples include Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window, Rope, The Breakfast Club, The Mist, etc.). It allows the actors to really use the space and allows the audience to concentrate on their performances. Pontypool is a quiet but still effective horror film with enough humor to keep things fun and fresh.

“I’m still here, you cocksuckers.”

Grade: B+

Movie Review – Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Movie Review – Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

I love horror. My wife loves musicals. Why not mix the two?

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) is a horror Goth-rock opera based on the 2002 musical of the same name, which was written and composed by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the film depicts a dystopian future where organ failure is epidemic and society is saved by a megacorporation called GeneCo. However, the corporation’s intentions are not altruistic – for those who cannot maintain their payments hitmen known as Repo Men hunt them down and repossess their organs. Amidst this nightmare world are grave robbers who steal an addictive painkiller from corpses to sell on the black market. Add to this some coming-of-age teenage drama, blood feuds, and a Repo Man with a tortured conscience and you’ll have a decent idea of what this film is about.

The film bombed at the box office and received mostly negative critical reviews, but over the years it has gained a niche cult following in the vain of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). There’s a lot to like about this film: the splatter punk gore, the Goth visuals – particularly Blind Meg, the interesting premise, and, in my opinion, Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Even Paris Hilton, who then was at the height of her unfathomable celebrity, puts in a decent showing. There is enough to keep my interest most of the time, and only one song I actively dislike (“Seventeen”).

That being said, the film runs too long and the convoluted story, especially when it comes to the central character of Shiloh (Alexa Vega), feels stretched too thin. However, the movie’s biggest failing is that for a musical of fifty-plus songs there are very few melodies or lyrics that are any good. Most of the music is simply mediocre and when they have something good going it’s over too soon, transitioning to a new, less interesting piece. Also, the ending involving Head’s character is rather anti-climactic, especially for a splatter punk movie. They build up an ultra-violent confrontation and end it with a whimper.

I can understand why audiences are divided on this one, with one half loving it and the other half loathing it. I’m in the middle. Ultimately, it’s a forgettable film. Nevertheless, it makes me curious to see what else is out there for horror musicals, as the combination is an intriguing one. Bousman and Zdunich collaborated twice more for 2012’s The Devil’s Carnival and its sequel Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival (2015), and those are films that, based on Repo!, at least have me curious.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – Deadgirl (2008)

Movie Review – Deadgirl (2008)

Discussion of a film like Deadgirl (2008) is the kind for which the phrase “trigger warning” was created. After watching it, considering its disturbing nature, I couldn’t shake a certain notion that I felt shouldn’t be there. I asked a friend to view it, warning him of the premise, so as to give me a second opinion. Despite its subject matter and all of its flaws, we both agreed, surprisingly, that the viewing had been worthwhile.

Two disenfranchised teens, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan), skip class and decide to break into an abandoned mental asylum. After drinking warm beers and vandalizing the premises they are chased by a stray dog into a remote section of the building from which there is no clear exit. They pry open a rusted door and find a woman naked, tied to a gurney and covered in plastic – and still alive. The two characters diverge at this point as Rickie wants to get help and J.T. wants to keep her as a sex slave. J.T.’s dominant personality wins out and Rickie, though not participating, keeps J.T.’s actions a secret. Audiences will certainly have their opinion of this movie germinating at this point, and much of this will rely on their ability to buy into the quick, horrific decision made by J.T. As a side note, I live in a fairly quiet New England town where, when I was in high school, a teenage girl was kidnapped, raped, drowned in a river, and had her corpse violated by her supposed peers – teens that remind me in many ways of J.T. As morally corrupt a decision as this character makes, it is certainly a possible one, and perhaps that’s what makes it truly horrific.

Soon J.T.’s violent nature leads to the discovery that the girl cannot be killed and that she seems to have an uncontrollable urge to bite anything that comes near her mouth. If the viewer as not figured out what she is at this point, maybe they’re not ready for this film. The situation, naturally, spirals out of control, and the plot takes the form of both the predictable and the surprising thereafter, including an unexpectedly hilarious kidnapping attempt gone awry.

Deadgirl is a film that deals directly with rape culture and the effects of misogyny. These teenage males have been raised to view women as commodities. “She’s like something out of a magazine,” says J.T. when first feasting his eyes upon the dead girl. He later takes this a step farther by placing a magazine photo over her battered face. Women are prizes to be won and possessed. Even Rickie, who should be our protagonist, wants to be a hero but is allured by the dark side. His attempts to help the dead girl and later his unrequited love, Joann, are motivated less by sympathy and more by an outdated chivalrous notion which sets him as a female protector. Manhood is continually defined by the males as having sex with women, and they are pressured to “man up” and not refuse to take advantage of the writhing corpse strapped to the gurney, no matter how cold, dry, or foul smelling she may be. This is not so much misandry as it is showing the terrible effects that misogyny has upon both women and men. In a world inhabited by a living dead girl, the teenage males become the real monsters.

Deadgirl still
Jenny Spain in Deadgirl.

Other themes are explored in interesting ways, contributing to J.T.’s malicious motivations. Rickie and J.T. come from poor families, and though they appear to be on different paths, with Rickie looking to a life beyond his meager trappings and J.T. resigned to it, they are both too afraid to be alone to leave the other behind. Rickie’s pining for Joann, who dates jocks, is seen by J.T. as Rickie trying to rise above his class, and thus leave him behind. When trying to convince Rickie to choose the dead girl over Joann, J.T. declares that “this is the best we’re ever going to have!” For J.T. the dead girl’s chamber becomes his domain, and it’s appropriate that it’s located in the basement. For once he is in charge, no longer subject to the standards of school or society. “Think about it,” he tells Rickie, “Folks like us are just cannon fodder for the rest of the world. But down here we’re in control, and we call the shots down here, man. It feels good, doesn’t it?” The dead girl is J.T.’s trophy, a symbol of manhood his fellow male teens will recognize.

Lastly, Deadgirl is about that stage in a teenager’s life when they realize life won’t turn out the way they’ve dreamed. This realization has a profound effect upon Rickie, and gives insight into the seemingly strange ending which at first appears out of his character.

Deadgirl, written by Trent Haaga and directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, is a movie that manages to rise above some of its more mediocre elements. It begins a bit shoddy but progressively becomes more eloquent and enveloping during the second half. Noah Segan won the 2009 Fright Meter Award for Best Actor for his performance as J.T., an award for which Shiloh Fernandez was also nominated. And of course, Jenny Spain’s performance as the titular dead girl is brave, compelling, and disturbingly convincing.

It’s not a film for everyone. If the subject matter it too disturbing, it is an easy film to pass up. But for those who do watch it, they may come away feeling surprised, and perhaps more than a little uneasy and guilty, for having enjoyed it.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – Shutter (2008)

Movie Review – Shutter [remake] (2008)

Shutter (2008) is yet another Americanized remake of a well-received, ghost-in-the-machine Asian horror film. It is not the worst by a long shot, and that’s the extent to which it can boast. I have not seen the original Thai film on which it is based, and therefore cannot tell which story elements can be credited to its predecessor, but Shutter is a movie with some intriguing plot qualities that unfortunately become buried in a timid approach with mediocre scares.

Directed by Masayuki Ochiai, the plot tells of a newlywed American couple who move to Japan so the husband, played by Joshua Jackson, can resume his work as a photographer. While driving they hit a woman in the street who mysteriously disappears, and thereafter they begin to see apparitions in photos and a ghostly presence which malevolently stalks them and kills their friends. The setting of the film is an attempt to recreate the success of 2004’s The Grudge in establishing the foreboding atmosphere of an outsider in a foreign land, but this effect is nullified when nearly every “Japanese” character with extensive English dialogue speaks with a perfect American accent.

The characters are never deeply developed in the film and the overly pretty actors are used more as models to showcase fashion. We care absolutely nothing for their fate, and therefore there is no tension. This is particularly true for the couple’s friends who are killed shortly after we meet them in quick succession in ways that are both laughable (a spirit-bullet-of-sorts through the eye) and/or boring. Unfortunately, the film’s approach to the now familiar techniques of Asian horror that were used with such gusto in the past is so tame that they’re stale.

I have to wonder, too, if there is more to the script than made it to the screen, for some elements are unclear. For instance, is their friend Bruno in his underwear because he’s too distraught to dress, or because of some sexual implication? Such ambiguity and reliance on suggestion are important for a film like this, the target audience of which is teens, to maintain a PG-13 rating, but too often these suggestions seem muddled or are missed entirely. This is also glaringly obvious when the couple hits the girl with their car on a rainy night, and the scene fades to black. When it fades back it is snowing, and when they get out of the car a moment later the snow has stopped falling and there is a thick layer of it on the ground. I have to assume that they both were knocked unconscious, though this is unlikely and the actors don’t indicate it, and it instead comes across as a mistake in editing continuity, which it still may very well be. Other elements of the script itself are unintentionally laughable, such as the way in which the “spirit photography” angle is worked into the script in an absurdly convenient way.

There is an interesting twist to the film’s ending and I will give the movie credit for not trying to rely exclusively on fake jump-scares, which is rare in a teen-targeted horror, but the air of dread it tries to muster is ultimately tired and ineffective.

Grade: D

Movie Review – The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008)

Movie Review – The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008)

2008 was a year in which true horror was released upon cinema in the unholy trinity of sub-par, terrible tween horror. Including One Missed Call and Prom Night, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, directed by Mickey Liddell and written by John Travis and Rebecca Sonnenshine, is probably the best of these three films, and that is all that can nicely be said about it. The story follows a teenager whose mother tried to kill her, and as she enters a private school and copes with the trauma she begins to believe that she is destined to become an agent of Satan unless she can do something to stop it. Think a prettier Damien: Omen II (1978), but less competent.

The plot of this film can be found in about the first and last five or ten minutes of this overly long film and the rest is simply teen drama filler fit for an ABC Family Channel series. Just in case you begin to fall asleep or forget you are supposed to be watching a horror film, there is a fake jump-scare at regular intervals, and you can safely guess that a bathroom mirror is involved in at least one. Each attempt at generating fear fails under the oppressive weight of its ineffective clichés and from a story line that is impossible to become invested in. In all fairness, Haley Bennett as the titular Molly makes a valiant effort as the lead but cannot hope to save a film which has her jumping at shadows every couple of minutes. The characters – attractive, privileged white kids – reflect who the target audience is.

It also helps if said audience belongs to a fundamentalist Christian youth group. Though the only Christians in the movie are extreme caricatures, they are also justified for their fanaticism and paranoia. The movie is light on horror enough, but religiously overtoned enough, to play well at a conservative Christian teen sleepover. Just for the record, that wasn’t a compliment. Truly, the movie’s biggest crimes are that it’s terribly dull and uninteresting, because by the time Molly is begging to accept Jesus as her savior we are merely begging for the film to end, and are willing to sell our souls to the Devil to see it done.

Grade: F

Movie Review – Prom Night (2008)

Movie Review – Prom Night [remake] (2008)

2008’s Prom Night, directed by Nelson McCormick, would have us believe that it is a remake of the 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis Canadian slasher, but the similarity goes only so far as the name. I admittedly am not a fan of the 1980 film as I find it fairly dull (I much prefer Terror Train, which Curtis had starred in that same year). This new film follows Donna, played by Brittany Snow, whose family was murdered by an obsessive teacher. Three years later she’s preparing for prom and, of course, the madman escapes custody and goes searching for her.

While I get bored with the original, it’s nonstop quality entertainment when compared with this new teen-targeted commodity. The acting is bland, the dialogue nauseating, the plot formulaic and predictable, the characters flat, and the directing uninspired. It’s amazing how the instantly forgettable killer is able to take out most of her friends in the most bloodless of methods. Truly, it is astounding that he can continually stab people in places that they will not bleed.

If one had to endure this film for whatever unfortunate reason, a good drinking game would be to take a shot each time a fake, clichéd jump scare occurs (two shots if a mirror is involved). You will be seeing double halfway through the film, and it might not only make the viewing endurable, but you may even see what the psycho-stalker killer sees in Donna, because my sober self didn’t buy it.

This review is a lazier attempt than most of my others, but this is the only way I can manage to keep thinking about this awful, awful film. So as to spend less time on this film, I’m going copy and paste a portion from my review of One Missed Call because the same message applies: I have seen countless terrible, mostly low-budget horror films that are easily forgettable and often times laughable. However, these bombs are usually made with the best intentions, and even though they are lacking in almost every other way, they contain some heart in their creation. This film, however, is nothing more than a cold, calculated profit machine meant to separate young teens from their parents’ money. It is the horror genre’s equivalent of a boy band.

Prom Night might even be able to take the tiara from One Missed Call for worst horror film of 2008, so there’s an accomplishment.

Grade: F

Movie Review – One Missed Call (2008)

Movie Review – One Missed Call [remake] (2008)

One Missed Call (2008) is directed by Eric Valette, written by Andrew Klavan and starring Shannyn Sossamon. It is a remake of Takashi Miike’s 2003 Japanese film of the same name, seeking to capitalize on the late 2000’s J-horror remake craze. It is probably the worst among them, and that’s saying something. I never thought that I would see a horror film that was so bad that making fun of it lost its appeal.

While watching it I couldn’t help but imagine aliens observing our planet through our horror films and trying to communicate with us by making their own, except that they do so without possessing any understanding of the human psyche or why these films scare us. One Missed Call would be the result. It is a paint-by-numbers wreck with poor acting, annoyingly frequent but ineffective fake jump scares, terrible CGI, and a script that is unable to tell even a simple, coherent story. What the plot is supposed to be about, though the film makes every effort to make you not care, is a group of college students who receive phone calls in which they hear their own deaths, and then die a few days later in that same way, which in turn prompts ghostly phone calls to be sent from their phone to those in their directory, repeating the pattern. I have not seen the original on which this is based, but I must assume it was far more competent.

The opening scene illustrates the ineptitude perfectly. After some shots of a hospital fire we switch to a girl talking on her cell phone in a backyard garden which has a small pond. The girl is startled by her cat (the cliché of clichés) who is near the pond and then turns back to her homework. When she looks toward the cat again it is gone, and for some reason she seems to think it fell in the water and drowned and so goes to investigate, which proves this scene was written by someone who has never owned a cat. The cat appears at the other side of the water and, just as the girl is visually relieved, a hand pulls her into the water. As silence again settles, the cat is then pulled into the water as well, and the girl’s phone begins to magically dial her friends. Aside from the fact that this is all much more funny than scary, it is also angering how the movie cannot even stick to its own rules in the first few minutes. Did the cat receive a phone call? Did the killer hand not want feline witnesses?

I have seen countless terrible, mostly low-budget horror films that are easily forgettable and often times laughable. However, these bombs are usually made with the best intentions, and even though they are lacking in almost every other way, they contain some heart in their creation. This film, however, is nothing more than a cold, calculated profit machine meant to separate young teens from their parents’ money. It is the horror genre’s equivalent of a boy band. One Missed Call is one call from Shannyn Sossamon’s agent that she should have missed.

Grade: F

Movie Review – The Happening (2008)

Movie Review – The Happening (2008)

2008’s The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan’s fifth film after his critically acclaimed The Sixth Sense (1999), opens with scenes of beautiful brutality. A woman on a park bench near Central Park looks off camera and says that she sees people clawing at themselves. Her friend then takes a silvery hair-pin and jabs into her own neck. Meanwhile at a construction site the camera pans to see workers falling violently and voluntarily to their death, smacking and crunching on the pavement. Considering what is later found to be the film’s subtext, these suicides could be seen as a metaphor for mankind’s actions toward the environment, effectively sealing its own doom. However, it may more accurately describe M. Night Shyamalan’s career.

What follows these memorable first scenes is a steady decline in quality, logic, and continuity. The film’s first and most evident weakness is that it is badly miscast, made obvious by Mark Wahlberg’s first scenes as a high school science teacher named Elliot. Shyamalan apparently wrote the lead role with the actor in mind, but Wahlberg, while a capable actor in certain scenarios, was not made for this. His delivery is almost comical, and at many times in the film you question whether or not it is all supposed to be intentionally campy. He speaks with a high, light voice, almost a loud whisper, and never diverges from this tone no matter the situation. One scene in particular, towards the end of the movie, involves an old, disturbed woman accusing his character of plotting to kill her (played by a genuinely creepy Betty Buckley in one of the film’s few good performances). I cannot adequately portray the hilarity of how Wahlberg’s answer, “What?! … No!” is delivered, but I will say that if he had then added, “Gee whiz, ma’am, that would be bonkers!” it would have been fitting.

Mark Wahlberg adds physical presence to a role that does not call for it. He is not the only actor miscast, as Zooey Deschanel, who plays Elliot’s wife, Alma, wanders throughout the film doe-eyed and dazed. She seems as confused about her character as we are about the director’s decisions. Shyamalan can without a doubt frame a beautiful shot, but his constant use of close-ups demands actors who can convey subtle emotions. John Leguizamo, as Elliot’s friend, whose performances are often criticized by viewers, is the only other convincing player and is sadly underused.

The Happening also suffers from continuity issues. Remember that description of people clawing at themselves? We never see it. Instead, those affected by the phenomena become confused and then calmly commit suicide.

At one point the characters are riding a train that stops in the middle of nowhere. When Elliot asks what’s happened, the conductor tells him they have lost contact, and when he asks with whom, the conductor answers, “Everyone.” Color me confused, then, when a few moments later the characters are in a diner where people are using cell phones and watching news broadcasts – is Amtrak communication technology really that inept? This diner scene also demonstrates just how incoherent and badly constructed this film is when a woman announces she has received a video from her daughter on her phone. The video shows a man in a zoo being mauled by tigers in the most unrealistic and unnatural manner reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, and again I wonder if I have been tricked into watching a comedy. Other frustrations abound: twice the movie shows us people who are unaffected by the “happening” with no explanation or acknowledgment. Also, the ending, which I will not give away, is so cheery and unbelievable that it is almost nauseating – just pay attention to the passage of time to realize why and be prepared to feel like your intelligence has been viciously assaulted.

The film, no matter how well-acted it could have been, could still not be saved due to its atrocious script. The dialogue is unnatural and the film’s pacing is awkward. The very premise, too, becomes more ridiculous the more one thinks about it. In a terribly convenient scene where a greenhouse owner solves the mystery halfway through the film, we find that the plants are releasing a neurotoxin which changes people’s self-defense instinct into a self-destruct one, and each time the wind blows it gets carried. So Shyamalan seeks throughout the film to make us afraid of wind. It should come as no shock that he does not succeed. For better eco-horror with nature fighting back, stick with Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant The Birds (1963) or the slew of “big creatures attack” films from the 1950s, which even with their camp factor are more entertaining.

The Happening calls back to the paranoia films of earlier decades and makes one wish they rewatched them instead, or at least had an MST3K soundtrack to turn to. Shyamalan has made some great films in the past, but as for this movie… well, to take inspiration from This Is Spinal Tap (1984), shit happens.

Grade: D-

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