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The Revenant Review

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2014

Movie Review – What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Movie Review – What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is a horror-comedy mockumentary that doesn’t try to break new ground with vampires, but retread old tropes in funny, inventive ways. Directed and written by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who both also star in the film, it’s backward looking in the most endearing way, paying homage to the vampire’s various on-screen forms via the unlives of four vampire flatmates living in Wellington, New Zealand. There is the foppish Viago, played by Waititi, something of a Hammer Films Production dandy, who loves his antiques and pines for a woman he let go many years ago. There is the youngest, Deacon, a New Romantic who takes many of his vampiric cues from the rebels in The Lost Boys (1987). We also have the medieval-minded Vladislav the Poker, played by Clement, who represents a Gary Oldman-style Dracula who has lost his mojo. Finally there is Petyr, an 8,000 year-old feral rat-like figure in the vein of Orlok in Nosferatu (1922), who lives in the basement (which may be a comment on where the traditional vampire now resides in current cinema, thanks to films like Twilight).

Unable to leave their flat during the day, the quartet have been unable to adjust to twenty-first century life and mostly bumble their way through their various bloody conquests. Along the way they meet a young, reckless vampire and his friend Stu, a human IT tech who they inexplicably gravitate towards as he teaches them about new technology.

Stu: [Showing the vampires Google] “Anything you want to find you type it in.”
Viago: “I lost a really nice silk scarf in about 1912.”
Deacon: “Yes, now Google it.”

What We Do in the Shadows 2014 still

Shadows is fast-paced and fun, and even when you see the jokes coming their execution is still effective and hits just the right amount of silliness. Like a This Is Spinal Tap (1984) for vampires, the movie wants these characters to succeed despite their ineptitude (and the fact that they’re serial killers). Some of the funniest scenes involve their rivalry with werewolves (not “Swear-wolves”) who appear to be part of some kind of twelve-step program. There are also many choice lines, such as when Deacon admits, “I think we drink virgin blood because it sounds cool.” To which Vladislav adds, “I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” It’s one of those films that feels like it will get funnier with repeat viewings.

Vladislav: “Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
Viago: “What are you bidding on?”
Vladislav: “I am bidding on a table.”

Grade: B+

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Movie Review – Starry Eyes (2014)

Movie Review – Starry Eyes (2014)

Starry Eyes (2014), written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, was partially funded by Kickstarter and made a big splash at film festivals in 2014. The film follows Sarah, played by a very talented Alex Essoe, whose desperation to become a Hollywood starlet leads her to the influence of movie studio Satanists and a dark, especially gory transformation. We meet her as she teeters on the edge, having fits of self-loathing anger and yanking her hair out, and follow her down as she falls ever deeper.

Starry Eyes is well-cast and displays some impressive cinematography, and has an electronic score that is reminiscent of John Carpenter. There is a lot to admire about the film, particularly its striking visuals and its use of metaphor. Sarah’s transformation is itself a metaphor for the ugliness of Hollywood made flesh. As her occultist producer tells her, “Ambition: the blackest of human desires. Everyone has it, but how many act on it?” He goes on to say, “This industry is a plague, Sarah. A plague of unoriginality, hollow be thy name. Yes, it’s a plague all right… You cut through the fog of this town and you get desperation, plastic parishioners worshiping their deity of debauchery. But that’s what I find interesting, Sarah. That’s what I want to capture in this film – the ugliness of the human spirit… This world is about the doers, the people who don’t just talk about what they’re going to do, they just do it! And that’s you.” This speech is key to understanding the changes in Sarah that come after, especially in how she views the mostly supportive friends which surround her. She is told that if she wants to succeed she must kill her old life and be reborn, not realizing yet just how literal this recipe is. The film takes a graphic, brutal turn in the final act, which employs some very impressive practical effects.

Starry Eyes 2014 still

The film as a whole is strong, though some aspects could have been better represented to strengthen it further. The influence of 1960s and 70s Satanist films, seen clearly in the design of the opening title as well as in various plot points, is underutilized. Sarah’s physical transformation, while compelling to watch, stalls the storyline instead of invigorating it. Also, we never really sympathize with her, our central character. We also don’t get to know the friends that surround her and how far back their connection with her goes, so when the story takes a dark turn towards them we’re left to simply marvel at the gore instead of feel emotionally affected. Also, we never see the filmmaking process even though it’s widely referenced – or do we? It’s difficult to discern if Sarah is preparing for a role or already starring in it, or both. Admittedly, this last point may not entirely be a weakness.

Starry Eyes has many strengths and its perceived weaknesses are likely to be more subjective to the individual viewer. It is certainly good filmmaking which comments effectively on the underbelly of its own industry, and it should undoubtedly be praised for that.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – It Follows (2014)

Movie Review – It Follows (2014)

David Robert Mitchell’s second film, It Follows, inspired by a recurring nightmare which the filmmaker experienced, made a big splash with both fans and critics when it was released in early 2015. Filmed in the Detroit area, the movie follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl experiencing sexual awakening who contracts a supernatural sexually transmitted disease. The boy who gives it to her, Hugh (Jake Weary), informs her that the entity will follow her wherever she goes, always walking slowly toward her, and if it reaches her will kill her. It can appear as a stranger or someone she knows. All she can do to save herself is pass it on to another. On the bare surface, the film appears like a teen’s cautionary tale about sex, and the complete lack of prophylactics would support that reading, but like a real STD there appears to be more going on beneath the surface.

Horror films, especially slashers, are often described as inherently moralistic cautionary tales. Teens are butchered for sexual and chemically-induced transgressions, and the slasher is God’s wrathful hand. However, I feel this misunderstands the purpose of horror and misinterprets its methods. Horror doesn’t seek to instill new fears into viewers, but rather to examine and exploit those already present, if sometimes unrecognized. It doesn’t say “don’t do this or this will happen,” but rather “here’s where your fears and insecurities lie, now get ready to confront them.”

Jay and her friends are in a transition period, confronting the realities of sex and entering adulthood. Jay believes the act of coitus will be freeing, but instead she finds it is a rather banal part of the human experience. Sex is neither celebrated nor condemned in the film – it simply is. It becomes another element of their mundane existence, just as taxes will one day be. Nevertheless, its introduction into their lives marks a loss of innocence, and the film’s mood emits a somber gloom regarding this. Hints of it abound: the first victim is seen apologizing to her father on the phone for being so difficult; when Jay asks Hugh who he would like to trade places with he chooses a young boy, happy and without adult worries; when Jay runs from her home the first time by riding a bicycle, she seeks the refuge of a nearby playground – a symbol of a more innocent time. The pool we see Jay floating contentedly in at the beginning, also symbolic of her childhood, is dried up after she may or may not have seduced three boaters to pass on the disease. Even though the characters are sexually active, the plan they hatch to kill “it” is the sort a child might come up with after taking too many notes from Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

It follows 2014 still 2

Sexual anxieties are also explored in various forms. Jay and her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) reminisce about finding porn magazines as kids and not understanding them. Later, Paul finds porn magazines in the abandoned house and thumbs through them, understanding them all too well, surrounded by discarded tissues. Will they too be used and discarded sexually by another? When we see what “it” does, in an especially Freudian manner, those fears are confirmed.

Loss of innocence is also explored in terms of class. As Yara (Olivia Luccardi), another friend, states, “When I was a little girl my parents would not allow me to go south of 8th mile. And I did not even know what that meant until I got a little older. And I started realizing that. That was where the city started and the suburbs ended. And I used to think about how shitty and weird was that. I mean I had to ask permission to go to the state fair with my best friend and her parents only because it was a few blocks past the border.” They live in a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs and, to escape, go either to the dilapidated neighborhoods of Detroit, whose abandoned decrepitude serves as a reminder of their own privilege and probable fate, or to the comfort of nature which, be it a cabin or the lakeshore, is a place associated with childhood memories. However, their escape to these settings, especially to nature, is partly out of practicality. Despite their relative economic privilege these are latchkey kids whose parents care only when they take the rare opportunity to notice. They have no adult guidance to assist them through their transition. Jay’s mother is mentioned but scarcely seen and is not viewed as a figure upon which to depend. When we see Jay drive off to the lakeshore and sleep on the car hood we are reminded that she is without income – there are no hotels to stay in, no plane tickets to buy – and she must eventually return to the comforts of the suburb.

Aside from being rich in subtext and symbolism, It Follows is also beautifully shot with an effective electronic score reminiscent of the synth scores from the early 80s or of John Carpenter’s early work, and which will likely be running through the viewer’s head long after the movie has ended. The era is purposefully indiscernible, mixing visual cues from the last few decades in a manner that keeps the viewer off kilter while allowing audiences who were born in different decades to relate in some way to the world which Mitchell has created. Yara reads off a technologically modern clam-shell e-reader, but we see the teens passing time watching old movies on an old television set or playing cards – the kinds of activities typically seen engaged by teens in movies of the late 70s or early 80s.

It Follows 2014 still

Another strong element which Mitchell uses is the camera’s gaze, which is decidedly male, lingering on the girls to emphasize their blooming sexual nature and, at times, unconscious desirability. As Hugh says of Jay, “It should be easier for her, she is a girl. Any guy would be with you.” Here he is openly acknowledging Jay’s physical desirability to those around her. Also, at one point the camera lingers on Yara’s legs, a character who throughout the film appears to have not viewed herself as particularly attractive. Ready or not, these girls are sexual objects.

The movie succeeds on many artistic levels, giving the viewer a lot to ruminate upon long after the movie has finished, and it is effectively creepy. It’s certainly one of the smartest films to come out of the genre recently. Personally, I appreciated the ambiguous ending, which may frustrate those viewers looking for concrete closure. Whether or not It Follows has the strength to maintain its longevity only time will tell.

Grade: A-

Movie Review – Zombeavers (2014)

Movie Review – Zombeavers (2014)

Zombeavers (2014) – wait, read that title again. If that word combination does nothing to spark your interest in seeing this film, you are obviously not the target audience. Clearly, the film is a horror-comedy, and it is one which combines The Killer Shrews (1959) with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Evil Dead II (1987). The first of those films is often a title mentioned when one feels the need to deride the terribly cheap drive-in movies of the 1950s (e.g., dogs dressed up as giant shrews), while the latter two movies are held as a modern classics, and rightly so. But I enjoy them all and love the idea of combining them into a modern, campy B-movie. In this respect, Zombeavers, directed by Jordan Rubin, doesn’t disappoint.

While most of the characters are unlikable and obnoxious, the beaver hand-puppets, ample gore, and practical effects are enough to satisfy any good-humored genre fan, and a few of the many jokes are actually quite funny. Plus, just when the notes begin to grow stale, especially as tired horror tropes are played for comedic effect, the script is smart enough to add some twists to keep things interesting, getting increasingly absurd in a comical, entertaining way.

Zombeavers is not high art and it doesn’t try to be. It’s a B-movie that wears its bloody beaver heart on its sleeve, and I can’t help but find that endearing.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Mirror (2014)

Movie Review – The Mirror (2014)

The Mirror (2014) is a British found footage film that was written and directed by Edward Boase. Boase was inspired by a 2013 news article that told of a mirror being blamed for its owners’ run of bad luck. Made on a micro-budget of only £20,000, the story centers on three flat-mates who buy a purportedly haunted mirror on Ebay and set up cameras in the hopes of winning The James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, which until 2015 was a real challenge that offered one million dollars to whomever could scientifically demonstrate the paranormal. It was tool meant to debunk the validity of such claims and no one was able to successfully claim it.

Hoping to get rich quick, the three friends hang the unassuming mirror in their apartment and it isn’t long before one of them, Matt (Joshua Dickinson), begins sleepwalking and acting stranger and stranger. Essentially, this is the whole movie – we see Matt quietly wander the flat at night, sometimes being menacing, while those around him make profoundly stupid decisions. It becomes tedious and tiresome in equal measure, both from the film’s execution and from the thick-headedness of the characters. For instance, their apartment is broken into and they immediately blame the mirror instead of calling the cops, even though the front door was ajar when they returned and the mirror has thus far done nothing. Did the mirror trash the place and then run to the store for a pack of cigs? When their friend suddenly goes blind do they call an ambulance from the phone that is clearing mounted on the wall in the hallway? Nah, they just put him to bed and tell him to rest so they can fret endlessly about not knowing what to do.

Other questions abound: Do they work? Is Matt the only one who knows how to lock a door? Are they really going to run around the house panicking, searching for their lost and possibly homicidal friend with microphone equipment clipped to their pajamas?

So little happens with the lackluster mirror – I’ve seen creepier mirrors in Home Goods – that it becomes irritating each time they remind us it’s there and is supposedly causing these issues. We know that the mirror is, for the purposes of a horror film, supposed to be haunted, but this conclusion is continually reached through such asinine reasoning by the characters that they come to perfectly represent the very impressionable, superstitious people that The James Randi Educational Foundation seeks to expose and/or educate. I’m confident this was not the film’s intention. They may be right about the mirror because this is a horror film, but their methods in reaching this conclusion are anything but logical or reasonable. Consider their acquisition of the mirror – they purchase it on Ebay taking at face value the seller’s insistence that it’s haunted and then devote their time and resources to prove that unfounded claim. Clearly, they aren’t geniuses and would likely make very poor investment partners. With a little tweak to the script such as making the mirror a family heirloom with a legendary past their focus and dedication might have been a little easier to swallow.

While the actors do a decent job with what little they’re given, there’s nothing to recommend The Mirror. I applaud the filmmaker for making a movie with so few resources, but what is offered will be repetitive and stale to any but the newest of horror watchers. If you’ve seen the movie’s poster, you already know the lone possibly horrific scene in the movie. The same poster warns the potential viewer “Don’t Look…” That’s good advice.

Grade: D-

Movie Review – Killer Mermaid (2014)

Movie Review – Killer Mermaid (2014)

Killer Mermaid (2014), also known as Nymph and Mamula, is the first ever Serbian creature feature. The director, Milan Todorovic, also directed the first Serbian zombie film, Zone of the Dead (2009). A horror concept like a killer mermaid was once laughable, until of course we saw something like it in Cabin in the Woods (2012). Nevertheless, when you go into a creature feature like this, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, and those expectations are never high.

Honestly, that may be to best way to approach this film, as it’s more well-done than one would at first suppose. The film begins like a B-movie exploitation flick, with a naked girl and a typical slasher-style killing, but this appears more like a ploy to get the audience’s attention as it tries to skirt away from a reliance on those tropes for the rest of the film. The first half of the movie is actually devoted to character development and flushing out their connections, which succeeds only partially. The mermaid doesn’t even enter in until the second half of the film, and her scenes are actually very impressive. The cinematography, too, is very appealing. It is shot on location at the island of Mamula, which is uninhabited and houses a nineteenth-century fort which, during WWII, was converted into a concentration camp by Italian fascists and became infamous for the tortures which occurred there.

This is all not to say that this is a great film. The acting is shaky and we spend a lot of time with characters just running around an island trying to hide from a crazed killer, sometimes making stereotypically poor decisions. Also, for some reason the movie focuses on two American girls, though one clearly has an accent (Ukrainian) which is never explained.

But really, the film tries harder than I would have given it credit for, and I was never bored while watching it. Instead, I wanted to see more of the mermaid, which is effectively only teased at for the majority of the film. She is actually creepy, which given the premise one can imagine is no small feat.

Killer Mermaid is an entertaining ride that just might surprise some genre fans in the mood for something light and fun. It’s a B-movie that doesn’t try to be an A-film, but that doesn’t condescend to its audience either.

Grade: C

Movie Review – The Houses October Built (2014)

Movie Review – The Houses October Built (2014)

The Houses October Built (2014) is a found footage horror about a group of friends on an RV road trip in search of extreme haunted house attractions, until they are stalked by some of the more unnerving performers and the scares start coming to them. Directed by Bobby Roe, who also stars, and co-written by him and some of the others who also star, the movie begins with an intriguing premise. Halloween haunted house-like attractions are a surprisingly under-utilized setting for horror films, with the main exception being Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981). The film is part found footage, part docu-style, and although the film is sometimes creepy but not terribly scary, it does actually do a good job of making one apprehensive about visiting such attractions – it unsettles the security one feels that they will be untouched. Who exactly are behind those masks? Have there been background checks? What’s to stop a killer from dressing up and taking people out, hiding them amongst the fake body parts and theatrical blood?

As has been mentioned, there are some creepy parts to The Houses October Built, particularly one involving a girl in a porcelain doll mask. And if you’re afraid of clowns, there’s plenty of them around. The narrative actually owes a lot to The Blair Witch Project (1999), with thuds on an RV standing in ruffles on tent fabric.

However, the movie falls into some of the unfortunate traps of found footage that ironically could have been fixed with a few more lessons from Blair Witch. Firstly, we’re never given a convincing reason as to why these people would be filming everything. They say they’re documenting their trip, but real people would forget about the camera after constantly being approached by hostile locals and being terrorized by strangers in frightening Halloween costumes. Had they been documentarians committed to the craft, we might have believed their persistence in filming. Also, it would have helped to have more camera perspectives rather than the single hand-held cam and a few stationary shots from mounted cameras (and why was there a camera facing the front of the RV?).

Lastly, Houses pulls its punches far too often, having much of the violence take place off camera. Blair Witch can get away with this because of the mythology it was building and the supernatural nature of the antagonist. But in Houses they’re people in masks and what we have is the equivalent of a slasher film that turns the camera away every time someone is killed. The ending is also abrupt and anticlimactic, and the creepy characters we’ve been seeing are inexplicably replaced by henchmen in skull masks who basically all look the same. There’s simply no pay off, and I for one was left feeling very disappointed.

The Houses October Built does not reach its promising potential, but I could easily see it fitting into a rotation of Halloween films. As said before, there’s really no onscreen violence, and though it’s unrated it could easily be shown on television with very little editing. On its own it’s generally avoidable, but just before going to a haunted attraction it might serve to set the mood perfectly.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – WolfCop (2014)

Movie Review – WolfCop (2014)

WolfCop (2014), written and directed by Lowell Dean, is a Canadian comedy-horror that consciously stays within the bounds of B-movie fare. In the film, a lazy alcoholic small town cop named Lou Garou (“loup-garou” means “werewolf” in French) is abducted by Satanists and turned into a werewolf, to be used towards their own nefarious ends. Finding that he stays conscious while transformed, Garou decides to clean up the town. But things aren’t what they seem and people close to him may not be who they appear.

WolfCop earnestly tries to be a cult classic, but such a status is bestowed, not made. There are some funny sight-gags, especially one involving a genital-first transformation and another with a bloody face being thrown on a windshield. Also, I appreciated the nods to past werewolf myths and classics, from Garou’s name to the use of the pentagram (1941’s The Wolf Man) and a shop called “Stiles Autobody” (1985’s Teen Wolf).

However, WolfCop ultimately does not deliver on its promise. The acting ranges from adequate to amateur, the story moves along slowly, and a lot of the comedy falls flat. At one point Garou decides to modify his police car into something akin to a cross between the Batmobile and Knight Rider, yet the changes are purely cosmetic and never play a part in the rest of the movie. It’s symptomatic of the film’s larger problem – ultimately, there’s simply not enough here.

WolfCop is overall entertaining. It had potential and it tried to be something fun and memorable, and it sometimes succeeded in the first goal but never really attains the second.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Stage Fright (2014)

Movie Review – Stage Fright (2014)

Stage Fright (2014) is a Canadian musical slasher film written and directed by Jerome Sable. It attempts to meld the sensibilities of Glee with the post-Scream (1996) teen slasher. Starring Allie MacDonald and Meat Loaf, it opens with a brutal kill and rolls to the opening credits, then entering into a campy musical number with genuinely hilarious lyrics:

Sam Brownstein: [singing] All of us have heard these names of hate, but let me get one thing straight: I’m gay, I’m gay, but not in that way / Musicals move me and touch me in ways I can’t say.

Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] He’s gay, but not in that way.

Sam Brownstein: [singing] I sleep with women but musicals make me feel gay!

David Martin: [singing/butting in] I’m gay, I’m actually gay. I don’t get hard when I see T and A / Could be my DNA or how I was raised.

Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] We don’t distinguish here at Center Stage.

Entire Camp: [singing/dancing] We’re all gay, we’re gay in all kinds of ways!

Sheila Kerry: [singing] Some in the bedroom.

Sam Brownstein, Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] And some ’cause of musical plays!

It is a great opening and a promising start.

Alas, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to this opening. It doesn’t effectively maintain either the campy humor or the slasher violence. This latter aspect, especially, falls flat. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining throughout and Meat Loaf in particular gives a committed performance. Truly, the movie is a better musical than horror film, and Sable undoubtedly has an ear for melody. Even when I was yawning at the kills I was tapping my finger to the songs and smiling at the gusto with which some of the young actors were singing them. Had Sable pushed the horror farther, and at least threatened to have that horror visited upon the earnest young campers, it might have made the film far more potent.

Stage Fright doesn’t offer much beyond the novelty of mixing the two unlikely genres, but it makes me hope more filmmakers will attempt the marriage and succeed. It comes close but comes up short, but if another filmmaker digs a little deeper they may hit real pay dirt.

Grade: C+

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