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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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2013

Movie Review – Cheap Thrills (2013)

Movie Review – Cheap Thrills (2013)

As I watched 2013’s Cheap Thrills, from E. L. Katz in his directorial debut, I kept hearing the voice of Walter Sobchak: “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me… Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish.” Both The Big Lebowski (1998) and Katz’s film can lead one to ask the same question: How much is a toe worth? Or, for that matter, any appendage? Or one’s health, self-respect, and reputation? What’s the price tag on your body and dignity?

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Cheap Thrills tells the story of two financially strapped old friends who meet a wealthy couple ready to dole out cash to whoever is willing to subject themselves to increasingly dangerous, morally questionable behavior. I was skeptical at first as to how well Katz would be able to keep the premise/gimmick going, but he succeeds in creating a darkly humorous, tension-filled experience based on a smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. The cast, which includes Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner, are all superb in their roles, embodying well-rounded characters who act as realistic as can be expected throughout the film, as greed for money or power pushes their ethical limits to their frontiers.

Each dare grows organically and each monetary amount, while not paltry, is hardly enough to solve the men’s financial problems, at least in the long term. The rich couple is bored – their wealth has given them all their desires, and now they’re desensitized. Their enjoyment comes from exploiting the underclass and turning it against itself. Certainly, a metaphor could be read into this regarding American capitalism and the insurmountable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots, and the way the former side manipulates and misuses the latter. The blue-collar men compete to demean themselves, and they find victory in their meager spoils. The question becomes, ultimately, can one be said to have truly succeeded when one’s integrity and moral character has been compromised?

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In the end, Cheap Thrills is oddly poignant. That every character acts of their own volition makes the proceedings more striking and, sadly, somehow more believable.

Grade: B

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Movie Review – A Field in England (2013)

Movie Review – A Field in England (2013)

In 1648 the English countryside was host to violent clashes and skirmishes between the Parliamentarian “Roundheads” and the Royalist “Cavaliers”. Their dispute was over the nature of government – who should govern and how – and it called into question that long held belief that kings ruled by divine right, God’s personal decree. The outcome was the trial and execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth, which would in turn become the Orwellian-sounding Protectorate which was overseen by the dictatorial, middle-gentry Oliver Cromwell. An intensely religious man who believed God guided his victories, it’s reasonable to ask whether divine right had indeed been usurped.

It is against this backdrop of class struggle and theological strife that Ben Wheatley’s 2013 film A Field in England takes place, and deals largely with these same philosophical issues as the characters try to find their way in a world where the rules appear to be quickly changing. We follow four deserters as they are accosted by a greedy alchemist and forced to dig for treasure in a barren English field. Psychedelic mushrooms are ingested along the way, creating opportunities for Wheatley to indulge in experimentalist cinema. Wheatley had already gained a reputation as a notable independent filmmaker with the successes that were 2011’s Kill List and 2012’s darkly comical Sightseers. Proving himself versatile and able to expand his craft, he approaches A Field with an art-house eye, filming the tale in black and white and interspersing the telling with surrealist hallucinations and freeze frames, molding a film in the vein of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

The script is written by Amy Jump, and she creates rich dialogue of prose and poo, effectively capturing the historical period while adding depth to the characters. The acting all around is solid, with Reece Shearsmith as the naïve Whitehead, in particular, standing out.

While there’s much to admire about A Field in England, there are times when the experimental quality becomes more obstructing than enriching. The plot can be difficult to discern at times, and the film’s experimental nature can make searching for meaning in many of the scenes an act or futility. At times, the surrealism feels over-indulgent, and it requires a patient and forgiving viewer to stick with the film. I enjoyed my time watching it, yet despite my being a lover of both horror and historical drama, I don’t see this as a film I will return to again and again.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – +1 (2013)

Movie Review – +1 (2013)

What would you do if you were confronted with your doppelganger? Attack it? Embrace it? Feel disgust or fear? Feel compelled to protect it? 2013’s +1 doesn’t dwell too ponderously on these questions and the possible answers, but it does touch upon them in interesting ways. One exchange in particular illustrates the opposing views. One characters states, “From the Book of Talmud: to meet oneself is… is to meet God.” To which another character responds, “Yeah, well in my book to meet God means to be dead.” Our own agendas and perceptions ultimately determine how we see ourselves and whether we fear or embrace change.

The late Oxford scholar of German Language and Literature S.S. Prawer has written of the doppelganger motif in horror, in reference to the essay “Der Doppelganger” (1925) by Otto Rank, one of Freud’s followers, that “the Doppelganger represents, in the first instance, the hidden part of ourself… but it also revives primitive beliefs in the independent, almost bodily, existence of our soul, mirror and puppet magic, demons or gods who amuse themselves by taking on our shapes – and all of these combine to produce a shudder that is full of dim memories” (Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, 118). +1, in one way or another, touches upon all these various aspects of our fears of confronting our doubles.

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Dennis Iliadis’s film takes a subgenre of film that, in my opinion, reached its nadir in the mid-1990s – the teen-party-sex-comedy where a house party becomes a crucible for cartoonish characters to discover themselves as they stumble upon or seek out love. 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait is a prime example. Though that film was meant to be a defining feature of my generation’s high school years, I never connected with it. It felt insincere and hollow, and the characters mere shadows of real people meant to represent me and my friends. I was pleased, then, to see Iliadis take that same basic scenario, with comparable characters, and have the mirror come to them, resulting in often violent confrontations.

+1 is a surprisingly beautiful film, with photography by Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. It’s also tightly crafted, allowing for repetition and visual cues to let us know where things stand in terms of the original characters and their doubles. Iliadis takes a risk by giving us an increasingly unlikable central character in David (Rhys Wakefield), but it pays off by giving the traditional teen-party-romance ending a macabre twist. Plus, we get some depth to characters normally relegated to clichés, such as Teddy (Logan Miller), who takes the opposite track from David by becoming increasingly more relatable, or Melanie (Natalie Hall), who goes from the trope of “Hot Chick at the party that Horny Teen wants to fuck” to a viable character with interesting and ambiguous turns.

Though classified as sci-fi, don’t look for science here, as it’s never the story’s focus, nor does it try to explain the source of the doubling in realistic terms. It might as well have been done by an incantation, as the plot would remain the same. The doppelganger is a source of horror going back to the genre’s first feature length film, 1913’s The Student of Prague. +1 updates the idea and allows for more variation, but the scenario forcibly pushes the characters to indulge and act upon their generally dark desires, impulses, and fears. It’s the horror of looking yourself in the eyes and making the judgment we all fear to make.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – Jug Face (2013)

Movie Review – Jug Face (2013)

Small-budget horror films are too often formulaic and predictable, save for a sacred few each year, and it’s therefore always welcome for an unconventional entry to defy one’s expectations. 2013’s Jug Face is one such movie, filmed in Tennessee and telling the story of a backwoods community that makes regular sacrifices to a pit in order to keep its favor. The next victim is revealed in visions to the simple-minded Dawai (Sean Bridgers) who enters a trance and creates a clay jug with their face upon it. A local teenage girl (Lauren Ashley Carter), pregnant from her brother, finds out she’s the next intended victim and hides the jug before anyone can see it, thus setting off a series of unfortunate events as the pit’s entity emerges to kill members of the community one-by-one until it is satiated with its desired target. Say what you will, but it’s certainly an original premise.

Writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle manages to weave the unsavory hillbilly tropes of incest and moonshine into an entertaining plot. The result is off-beat and at times quirky, but it never devolves too far into farce, thus allowing us to in some degree sympathize with our central characters. Not everything works, such as the image of the ghost boy, and by the third act the story threatens to grow redundant, but the film is elevated by confident direction and a strong cast. Carter carries the central role well, but it is Bridgers who steals the show. For those who have seen these two actors in 2011’s The Woman, where their roles are very different, you can’t help but be amazed at their transformations here. The interactions between the two are some of the best scenes in the movie and give the film its heart.

Jug Face is a bit clunky in places, and the ending is unfortunately underwhelming, but it’s an imaginative tale that showcases genuine talent both on and off the screen.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Birth of the Living Dead (2013)

Movie Review – Birth of the Living Dead (2013)

The 2013 documentary Birth of the Living Dead, directed by Rob Kuhns, traces the seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968) from its modest origins to its eventual cultural influence. Along the way interviews with George Romero and various academics trace the filming process, which was itself pioneering of modern independent cinema, and the context in which it was made and released. It’s eye-opening to realize just how involved the cast was in other aspects of the film and how much they worked to ensure its success.

The film effectively sets the stage for 1968 and persuasively examines why various elements of the film resonated so deeply with contemporary audiences, taking into account such turbulent events as the urban race riots or the media coverage of Vietnam. Focus is especially and rightfully paid to the performance and dignity of Duane Jones as Ben and the impact this character had on African-American viewers at the time.

Birth of the Living Dead is an informative and entertaining documentary that will give fans a deeper appreciation for an already much loved classic horror film. I think it’s a stronger and smarter film than the more popular zombie documentary Doc of the Dead, which released the following year. Be sure to stick around for a post-credit interview with the late Bill Hinzman, the original Cemetery Living Dead.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Den (2013)

Movie Review – The Den (2013)

The Den (2013) is the directorial debut of Zachary Donohue. It is a found footage slasher that exploits web-paranoia to an admirably effective degree.  Told entirely through web-feeds, computer and phone screens, and security cameras, the story follows a researcher whose grant involves continuous activity through a chat-roulette-like site called, as the title would suggest, The Den. She becomes witness to a murder and is soon being stalked by a killer who uses technology to target her unsuspecting friends and quickly destroy her life.

The Den moves swiftly and provides an inventive premise for a found-footage film – one that would be imitated the following year by 2014’s Unfriended – though aspects of it become increasingly absurd, especially towards the end. I’m admittedly not a technophile and my knowledge of computers is limited, but even I could gather that it’s best not to think too much about the technology on display and how it’s presented. For every effective scare there is one that strains believability. For instance, the killer lures a woman away from her home and plays a lame trick on her only to dump her body back where she started – wouldn’t it have been a better use of time and resources to just kill her in her house?

It leans heavily upon its gimmick, but for the most part that’s enough to see it through. Regardless of its shortcomings, The Den is an entertaining experience that has an energetic, suspenseful finale and will make you think twice before clicking on an unsuspecting link – in case you needed reminding, that is.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Dark Touch (2013)

Movie Review – Dark Touch (2013)

Dark Touch (2013) is an Irish film that deals with the heavy issue of child abuse and its harmful, often irrevocable effects. Written and directed by Marina de Van, the film follows eleven-year-old Niamh (Missy Keating) who has been systematically sexually abused by her parents, and one day the house appears to turn against them and kill them. Niamh goes to live with neighbors and finds that her emotional instability is linked to the paranormal violence of furniture and fixtures attacking people, made worse by her inability to read people’s often benevolent gestures toward her due to her past experiences. The film does a fine job, helped by Keating’s performance, of placing the viewer in Niamh’s perspective as she misinterprets the actions of those around her to their eventual detriment.

The film is strongest in its quieter, character-driven moments, but loses much of its power when it tries to handle horror. The subject of abuse can at times be heavy handed, such as when Niamh witnesses the abuse of two classmates by their mother and decides to intercede. Even after furniture has attacked the woman she immediately proceeds with beating her kids, and when the house goes haywire she lashes out at them more. At some point even a child abuser would look to alternative explanations or at least take a break from their attacking to figure out why inanimate objects are moving across the room at them.

In the final twenty minutes the film makes an awkward turn, opting for simplistic horror clichés over a more nuanced, psychologically convincing examination of Niamh’s journey. We get shock instead of ideas and the resolution feels forced and rushed as key characters fall by the wayside – one even disappears entirely and inexplicably. We’re left with plotlines which are either unresolved or rendered moot. Niamh’s inability to discern reality from her slanted perspective finally overcomes her at a birthday party, releasing her tenuous grasp on the real world; nevertheless, though a precedent has been set the transition feels sudden, unjustified, and unsatisfactory. If Niamh feels like Carrie White, prepubescent, Dark Touch feels like Carrie (1976), under-cooked.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – Under the Skin (2013)

Movie Review – Under the Skin (2013)

Art-house horror films seem to divide genre fans. Their emphasis on symbolism, aesthetics, experimentation, and their unconcern for traditional narrative can frustrate viewers who are used to or reliant upon films that are more straightforward and designed for larger markets and mass appeal. Ironically, horror is rarely made for large markets or mass appeal, but many fans go to the genre for the comfort of the usual tropes. This is not a criticism, but merely an observation. 2013’s Under the Skin is exactly the kind of movie one talks about when discussing art-house horror, and it’s therefore a film that generates strong reactions from viewers, with them either loathing or loving it. Count me in the latter party.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Glazer, and based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, Under the Skin is an alien abduction movie like no other. The film opens with what we at first assume is a solar system aligning, only to find that it is actually the construction of an eye, all the while hearing Scarlett Johansson’s voice play over as she practices human speech. This immediately invokes themes of interplanetary travel and physical transformation, appropriately though enigmatically telling the audience the origins of our central character. Johansson plays the mysterious alien posing as a woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, luring unsuspecting men back to a dilapidated house where they submerge into a reflective, meniscus fluid. The purpose of these abductions is unclear, but they’re also beside the point. Instead the lens and the narrative focus on Johansson and what she sees and how she sees it, the camera at first viewing the world around her as dispassionately as she does. At one point the street scenes layer into chaos, mirroring her own inability to process what she is seeing, and we ultimately see ourselves through her objective perspective. She is aware, perhaps even trained, to understand that her body is a lure for men, yet she does not fully understand the function or potential of that body, at least not for the first half of the film.

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The character arc, however, is really about awakening to human experience. The alien begins to become aware of the sensations of her new skin, both the pain and the pleasure, as well as of sympathy. At first her gaze is reserved for her male victims, seeking them out on the city streets, but then the gaze turns towards women. These women are not potential victims, but role models for the alien as she comes to gradually recognize her own femininity. Nature plays a heavily symbolic role, as we see her begin at an empty industrial zone and enter the city, yet as she becomes conscious of a growing humanity she moves to the suburbs and then to the dense forests – that is, closer to the natural world.

Other themes float through the film. For a change we follow what amounts to a female serial killer prowling for male victims, placing men in the position usually reserved both in fiction and actuality for women. The men she meets have no concern for their own safety, revealing a patriarchal culture in which men have nothing to fear from women; though, as the film shows, women have much to fear from men.

Under the Skin lives up to its name. Though it’s a quiet film that’s patiently paced, it manages to be wholly unnerving by hitting the viewer in emotional places that horror often attempts but rarely succeeds in capturing. As a father of a young son, the scene of the toddler crying on the beach, struggling to stand as the alien walks by him as unemotionally as the approaching waves, haunts me. Likewise, the void in which the male victims are suspended nude as if in a womb, looking at each other with a seeming curious apathy, is disturbing. The viewer can hear the clicks of eyelids shutting as though we were floating with them, airless. And the climax of the scene, when we see what becomes of these men, is both horrifying and mesmerizingly beautiful. It pokes at our fears of being used and discarded, which is once again usually a theme reserved for female victims.

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The narrative of the film is not an obvious one, as the importance of scenes is often not apparent until several more have passed. The filmmaking process, too, is nontraditional. Many scenes, including those in the nightclub and shopping center, were filmed covertly so as to capture some authenticity. The men who are lured by Johansson are unaware of the cameras, allowing them to act naturally. Despite these hidden cameras the gorgeous cinematography is never compromised. The special effects, which are mostly done in camera, are visually stunning. Input was also added from significant cast members to gain realism, particularly with regard to a victim played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, as he told the director what things Johansson might do to effectively seduce him.

As mentioned above with the audio of the void, the sound design and score add another layer of discomfort. The score itself sounds alien at times, the noises invoking natural forces or contrasted with the synthetic sounds of synths or changing radio frequencies. We are thus reminded of alien technology and our central character’s own artificiality, as well as the natural impulses which are making their presence known upon her.

Lastly, a word must be said about Scarlett Johansson, upon whom the film by necessity rests. She gives either a great performance, or an equally and appropriately great nonperformance – I’m still not sure which. Either way, it’s a difficult and brave role and she is up to the task entirely. This film marks Johansson’s first full frontal nude scene, and it says something to the film’s power and to her performance that her exquisite body did not distract me – a red-blooded heterosexual male who has certainly admired her form often in the past – from the symbolism and importance of the moment. Indeed, it perhaps speaks to the strength of the film that a famous sex symbol’s nude scene attracted such little fanfare, as the scene, in the context of the film, is less sexy than it is contemplative.

Under the Skin is the kind of film that excites me as a horror fan. It invokes the best of David Lynch and Lars von Trier and it goes to places artistically where the genre rarely treads, revealing whole new potentials for future filmmakers. As an art-house horror it’s not for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d gladly crawl beneath the surface of again.

Grade: A-

Movie Review – Big Ass Spider! (2013)

Movie Review – Big Ass Spider! (2013)

2013’s Big Ass Spider!, a comedy sci-fi with horror-gore elements, is a campy B-movie creature feature that’s a cut above the usual offerings like The Asylum’s Sharknado, which was released the same year. Director Mike Mendez adds a cinematic weight that those other films can’t match, making the movie ultimately better than its simple plotting requires.

The story follows Alex, an exterminator played by Greg Grunberg who teams up with a security guard named Jose, played by Lombardo Boyar, to stop an alien-spider hybrid which is growing exponentially, killing people and wreaking havoc across Los Angeles. There is great comedic chemistry between Grunberg and Boyar and their banter is often hilarious, particularly with regard to Boyar who steals most of the scenes he’s in. At times the character of Jose threatens to devolve into an overly simple stereotype but thankfully his proactive good nature saves him from coming too close to a racist caricature.

The CGI in the film is serviceable, though sometimes shoddy, which is to be expected from movie of this type that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and generally serves to add to the fun campiness. Nevertheless, the animators are able to infuse a bit of much appreciated personality into the spider and give it an intimidating creature design. The practical effects are also notable, particularly an amazing face-melt that is a terrific update on what we saw in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Big Ass Spider! pays homage to the rampaging creature features which came before, including the one that started it all, King Kong (1933). Likewise, the movie is self-aware of its B-movie roots, featuring a cameo by the king of Z-movies himself, Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment, as a park jogger.

Despite these strengths, the movie still suffers from many of the usual shortcomings of B-movies like it. There isn’t a lot of character development and the plotting is thin and obvious, hitting the usual marks we’ve come to expect from movies like this. Big Ass Spider! doesn’t do much new, but it does tend to do it better than many others. Given the title, viewers will know if this is the film for them.

Grade: C+

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