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Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Considering the decades of supremacy which the Western genre held in American cinema, and itself being a genre which frequently employs blood, brutality and violence in its storytelling, it’s rather surprising that it hasn’t wedded itself to horror more often. There are a handful of examples, such as 1999’s Ravenous, but the relatively few others have been largely forgettable. Those who read my reviews regularly know that I’m an absolute sucker for mixing horror with period piece cinema, and that I’m fond of Westerns only made my anticipation of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk even more potent.

From first time director S. Craig Zahler, the film, despite its small budget of only $1.8 million, showcases a stellar cast, with Kurt Russell being pitch-perfect as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer, Matthew Fox as John Brooder, and Richard Jenkins stealing the show as the lovable, loyal, but not all mentally there, Chicory. He delivers memorable dialogue and helps to fill the space in otherwise quieter moments. These four characters ride out in search of abducted friends and loved ones, seeking the home of semi-mythical, cannibalistic troglodytes. Zahler was already a successful Western novelist and had sold many scripts which unfortunately went unproduced. Looking at what budget was available to him, Zahler wrote the script for Bone Tomahawk to specifically meet those financial ends, and the first draft of the script is the one he subsequently filmed.

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And what a wonderful script it is, rich with witty, expressive dialogue that the actors, with Russell and Jenkins in particular, deliver with ease. The characters are well-realized and the film is very much a character study of these four men, although one also gets a sense for the town of Bright Hope from which the men leave in the beginning of the film. In this sense the movie sways more into the less plot-driven entries of the Western genre, and horror fans not accustomed or expecting this may come away feeling the film is slow. We get a sense for the characters and find ourselves rooting for them, for even the Fancy-Dan Indian-killer, Brooder, who as we unravel his past come to understand why he is the way he is. The men are united partly by a sense of duty, but also in their love for their women, whether those women are safe, deceased, or missing. In all their faces one can see the profound impact and dependency they’ve placed upon the females in their lives. Only Brooder is unattached, but his history gives reason for why he has chosen to remain so, to avoid the fear and pain his three compatriots display. As he tells Chicory, “Smart men don’t get married.”

Nevertheless, we want to see all these men succeed, or we at least want to see them go out in a “blaze of glory” like in many Westerns, but the horror elements lead us to believe that only death and pain awaits these heroes, and perhaps their deaths will be in vain. In this way the film creates tension. There is very little music, and the only music present gives very little reason to hope their journey will be successful. As a local Native American tells them in the beginning, they have no hope of overpowering these troglodytes even with their firearms – their mission is a futile one.

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Yet Sheriff Hunt realizes early on their only chance of success lies in their wits, if they can keep them, when he tells O’Dwyer, “The only advantage we have over these cave dwellers is being smarter.” Thus the film becomes a crashing of worlds as the prehistoric troglodyte culture comes up against the periphery of American civilization, though by American standards the Western frontier was hardly civilization at all. By the turn of the century Native American populations were largely subdued beneath the boot-heel of white “progress,” and so these remote cannibals become the last victims of Manifest Destiny.

Bone Tomahawk recreates its era well, in language, sentiment, and location. The cinematography serves the story and evokes the Western expanse while its story takes nods from Western genre classics, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Race relations, though focused upon, are nonetheless not softened for modern viewers, giving a further air of authenticity. When the film delves into horror, and the titular weapon does its work, it does so realistically and unflinchingly. I can only hope more filmmakers will take inspiration and infuse the macabre into other historical periods.

Grade: B+

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The HorrorCast – Episode 10

For Episode 10 of The HorrorCast Marknado and I review 2015’s The Hallow and 1995’s Mosquito. We discuss the largely untapped potential of fairy lore and how a certain guitar legend should have stayed far, far away from acting.

The HorrorCast

You can listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Podomatic.

 

Movie Review – Deathgasm (2015)

Movie Review – Deathgasm (2015)

Stop. Read the title of this movie again. If this comical conjoining of Eros and Thanatos makes you wary (though it may have made Freud proud), choose a different film to watch. If you’re intrigued, welcome to this review you sick, head-banging motherfucker.

In early 2014 Weta Digital’s Jason Lei Howden won first place in New Zealand’s “Make My Horror Movie” competition, winning the NZ$200,000 prize towards production. Executive Producer Ant Timpson said that “Deathgasm was an early front runner in many peoples’ eyes but it was the sheer enthusiasm and utter commitment shown by Jason and his team that I think helped push the project to pole position.” That same excitement and passion can be seen on the screen, as well.

Howden took inspiration from his youth to write the story of two outcast teenagers who seek escape from their mundane life through heavy metal. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) lives with his fundamentalist Christian extended-family members who think he’s a Satanist and is bullied by his cousin constantly, and he finds a kindred spirit in Zakk (James Blake), a loner with a fuck-all attitude who helps him indulge in his metal-mania. They form a metal band with two mild-tempered D&D nerds and unwittingly unleash a demonic onslaught upon their town. Joining them is Medina (Kimberley Crossman), Brodie’s crush, though Zakk tries to sabotage their relationship for fear of losing the one guy in the world he’s ever connected with.

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The basics of the plot are fairly conventional, but it’s Howden’s way of implementing the heavy metal sensibility that allows Deathgasm to really shine, marrying elements of The Evil Dead (1981) with one of my childhood favorites, The Gate (1987), and adding a gory helping of Brain Dead (1992) for good measure. If a word combination like “murder-boner” is likely to elicit a chuckle from you, you’ll most likely connect with the sometimes offensive and often cartoonish humor and clever editing on display here – everything we’ve come to expect and love from Kiwi splat-stick – even if some of the sight gags run a bit too long.

Deathgasm deals heavily with themes of being misunderstood: Brodie is assumed to be miscreant because of his attire; Medina is not expected to like heavy metal; being a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean being nonjudgmental or squeaky clean, etc. The misfits form their own family, finding solidarity in their ostracism and in their attempts to imagine a more magical and accepting world.

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My only gripe with the film, ultimately, is in the ending, which I found to be anticlimactic and somewhat confused. The film builds up this final conflict with a hellish demigod named The Blind One, and I couldn’t help but expect more than what we were given. I am willing to forgive Howden, however, due to the shoe-string budget with which he had to contend. Truly, considering the task at hand and the meager resources available, it’s an accomplishment that Deathgasm turned out as competent and entertaining, let alone as ambitious, as it did.

Grade: B

Movie Review – He Never Died (2015)

Movie Review – He Never Died (2015)

I received my first computer just before I was entering high school and I quickly took to spending my evenings writing stories. One of the first stories I began to tap away at involved a girl who became involved with a vampire – a figure who was as deadly as he was seductive. I took inspiration from various vampire depictions that were popular at the time and it showed. He was dark, handsome, elegant, and, as clichés demanded, hunted for prey in New York City raves. Unsurprisingly, there was a bit of a love story. Nevertheless even then, despite being very much in keeping with contemporary vampire lore, this depiction of immortality didn’t feel right. I wrote about fifty pages and even though they are now lost to ether the core story has stuck with me, and in the two decades since I first began writing it I’ve periodically returned to the tale as something of a mental exercise, tweaking and adapting it over time.

As I contemplated immortality more deeply it lost more and more of its glamour, and so did my vampire. He went from dashing and regal to reclusive and mentally unhinged. He didn’t frequent raves and live an unlife of bacchanalian excitement but sometimes slept for days or sat in a room quietly for hours while time ticked by. The urgency of life which propels us was forgotten to him, and when he wasn’t dangerous he was a person who people would frankly find boring to be around. Unlike supposed movie immortals who appear to shop at Hot Topic, my vampire became literally old fashioned, wearing out-dated, threadbare clothing, no longer able or willing to keep up with style trends. He loathed interacting and feigning niceties and dealing with the petty problems of pulse-pumping people, and had told so many lies and used so many names he had difficulty remembering which memories were real and which were fabrications. Furthermore, he became more dangerous. His personality was fractured from centuries of deceit and murder, and which personality one met depended on the depths of his hunger. If he needed to feed the man that ignored you the day before might now not hesitate to break your skull without a moment’s notice, and as your vision fades you’ll find no remorse behind his cold, staring eyes. I may sit down one day to rewrite the story in its transformed state, but it’s this version of everlasting life – particularly one that is also of everlasting violence – that seems the most real to me.

After watching Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died (2015), it’s the similar depiction of immortality – of a monotonous existence devoid of empathy – that most impressed me. Krawczyk had Henry Rollins in mind when he wrote the part of Jack, an immortal cannibal who’s tired of life and wants as little to do with people as possible, and Rollins quickly signed on to do the part. Rollins is well-cast: he hits the right tone and delivers the dry wit that infuses the somber tale with welcome dabs of humor. In many ways Rollins plays opposite his own nature – he’s loud, energetic, and intense, whereas Jack spends his days sleeping and watching television, trying to go through existence expending the littlest amount of energy possible and similarly keeping his interactions with mortals short and impersonal, mostly for their own safety. Essentially, he’s bored and depressed. When he does go out, it’s to buy blood, eat vegetarian dishes at a local diner, or play Bingo with seniors. Jack has clearly done some terrible things, but two women enter his life who exploit the sliver of humanity that remains, if one can call it that. Jack’s connection to them is driven more by a sense of obligation than by anything that could be considered emotional. These aspects, and Rollins’s embodiment of them, are certainly the strongest aspects of the film and the ones which I most admire.

He Never Died tells a quirky tale of vampirism, biblical allusion, and sociopathic tendencies tentatively restrained. The budget is obviously low, and these financial limitations make themselves apparent in the meager and mostly off-screen action sequences. This is unfortunate, as the film feels largely like a somber, understated build to some explosive violence which seems to always be potentially brewing beneath Jack’s surface, but the eruption of said violence is rarely satisfactory. Additionally, there is a scene which I found confounding, where Jack is in search of his estranged daughter and appears to detect her behind a bookcase, but he then leaves and goes on searching only find himself back at the same exact bookcase as though he never suspected it the first time. It’s a directorial choice I found overall confusing. Likewise, there’s a gratuitous application of Dutch angles and sometimes the editing makes it difficult to determine how much time has passed.

If one really wanted to tear this film apart, one would find ample ammunition to do so. But I am not so inclined. Despite some shortcomings I feel that He Never Died is a ride worth seeking out. Rollins carries the role well and there are enough ideas and circumstances here to entertain even the most discerning of viewers.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Nightmare (2015)

Movie Review – The Nightmare (2015)

It begins just as you close your eyes to sleep. A vibration, like an electrical current, goes through your body. Then they come. Sometimes you feel their presence behind you. Sometimes you see them, their slender, shadowy forms returning your gaze. You try to scream but are speechless. You try to move but your limbs won’t respond to your silent commands.

This is a common experience in those who experience sleep paralysis, or so says the documentary The Nightmare (2015) directed by Rodney Ascher. Ascher interviews people who claim to experience the phenomena, allowing them to disclose their own personal views on the subject matter, and uses a horror pastiche to dramatize their terrifying experiences. This technique follows in the successful footsteps of shows like Unsolved Mysteries or the paranormal anthology television series A Haunting, where eyewitness accounts are dramatized. Some of what Ascher shows us is truly creepy, and the interviews are filmed in dim lighting as though the shadows are always encroaching.

Ascher’s previous horror-related documentary was the popular Room 237 (2012), where he interviewed and showcased various people’s perceived meanings and theories associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining (1980). His approach was similar in that film, putting an unbiased lens on people and allowing them to deliver their views. However, despite the generally favorable reviews I read for the film, I quickly grew impatient with it. For every interesting theory there were several others that were obvious rubbish. By not discerning between the wheat and chaff, what ideas might be valid are belittled and overshadowed by nonsense. It becomes the viewer’s duty to curate the material, and there isn’t enough in the film’s presentation to inspire me to do so.

The Nightmare suffers from the same fate, though because it deals with a diagnosable condition its refusal to consult or give voice to the scientific and medical community is ultimately irresponsible. Ascher allows people from different backgrounds to give their interpretations of the shadow men, and these range from demonic to scientifically feasible. However, he gives greater attention to the supernatural theories, giving indication that these shadow men are somehow real and tormenting their victims rather than archetypal constructs of a relatable human consciousness. As he did in Room 237, reasonable explanations are once again buried in the accounts of people whose judgements are clearly suspect – some stories just sound like disturbing lucid dreams – or people who may be suffering from significant psychological conditions. For instance, a great deal of time is devoted to one man’s recollections of static men, who he suggests are aliens, even though his experiences don’t really fit in the mold of sleep paralysis. The static men, also, unlike the shadow men, look like people in goofy costumes. Whatever tension is created in the reenactments is lost when we return to these stories, or else it is due to Ascher’s tendency to switch narrators so often that not enough time is allowed to build atmosphere.

I acknowledge that these images may be very frightening for those who have experienced them, but about half-way through The Nightmare I began looking idly at my phone. The film quickly became repetitive and the minutes dragged towards an unsure destination. For a documentary that deals with the fear of going to sleep, my wife had no problem nodding off and sleeping soundly beside me before the movie ended even though she’s generally sensitive to horror. Rather than wake her, as I usually do, I envied her and let her snooze. When she awoke, she wasn’t even interested in what she had missed. She asked me what I thought of it. I shrugged my tired shoulders and replied, “Eh.” We then went up to bed and slept deeply.

Grade: D

Movie Review – Crimson Peak (2015)

Movie Review – Crimson Peak (2015)

In an early scene in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), our American heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is trying to write a novel which someone casually dismisses as a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she tells him, “it’s a story with ghosts in it.” The same description can be applied to the film’s approach to the supernatural. As Cushing states in the opening, “Ghosts are real. That much I know.” This is less an indication of what is to come for the audience, who would be justified in anticipating a story infested with malevolent entities, and more of a statement of fact. In Cushing’s world ghosts exist and they sometimes interact with mortals, just as her inky mother visited her as a child and cryptically warned her to stay away from Crimson Peak. Ultimately, however, in this tale they are peripheral – truly, the plot would still stand if the ghosts were removed.

Ghosts are not the point, yet they are also not the gratuitous window-dressing their inclusion may at first appear to be. Cushing says that in literature they are metaphors for the past, and that is to some extent true for this treatment of them, though Del Toro’s preoccupation with moths and butterflies in the film could offer another. The ghosts may be the past coming back to haunt our central character, but they come equipped with knowledge of the present and future. In one scene, as Cushing and the mysterious Lady Lucille Sharpe sit in the park they view butterflies dying in the sun and note at least one particular cocoon. Perhaps death is simply a metamorphosis to an altered state, yet like these butterflies the spirit cannot live in the open. Nevertheless we later see dozens of moths thriving in an attic – the home is the place for the dead, if our centuries of stories are any indication.

Those going to see Crimson Peak expecting a fast-moving modern horror will likely leave the film feeling underwhelmed. The film is a gothic romance, through and through, and is an ode to the gothic writers of the nineteenth century. Set in the last years of the Victorian era, Del Toro takes Cushing from Edith Wharton’s New York high society backbiting to a veritable House of Usher oozing with blood-like red clay. It is the stuff of what Edgar Allan Poe’s contemporaries called “German tales,” where the horrors weren’t the figments of imagination, but real and dangerous. Victorian literature rears its head as Cushing notes a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle on a bookshelf, foreshadowing her own detective work later in the film as she begins to realize the danger in which she has placed herself. I almost wish there were more of these literary nods for I could easily see Cushing being a variation of Jane Austen’s Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey (1817), who is so taken with gothic literature that she immediately suspects the worst when first inside an actual, though entirely benign, medieval abbey. Austen’s story was satire (though she personally loved the gothic genre), yet I could imagine Cushing being more mentally prepared for the agitated spirits and murderous mysteries she encounters due to her familiarity with the gothic genre, like the Victorian equivalent of meta-horror in the vein of Scream (1996). To emphasize her as a romantic, rather than a budding logician, might have better served to explain her willingness to be swept away in the more macabre circumstances.

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Crimson Peak is not a film in a rush to tell its story. It’s in no hurry to leave the exquisite sets and impressive period wardrobe that the camera picks up in rich detail. The house is a character unto itself, built whole for the film. While the story looks two centuries back for inspiration, the color palette and general mood look to the period films of 1960s Hammer Film Productions (Cushing’s last name is likely an homage to Hammer’s Peter Cushing) and to the vibrant reds of Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Similarities could easily be made, in period and visual style, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), though Crimson Peak is in many ways less surreal and more grounded than that film. Nevertheless, Del Toro doesn’t always allow logic to get in the way of his images and gives his imagination relatively free reign, particularly in the aspects of the crumbling estate as red clay flows continuously like blood down the walls or snow falls dreamlike within the house through a hole in the roof. Del Toro’s approach is a conscious contrast to modern horror. He attempts to make horror big both in budget and in ambition again, and perhaps also more respectable to the general audience who may be more forgiving of its horrific qualities if they can get lost in a compelling tale. The story, which was co-written by Matthew Robbins, is not one that will hold many surprises for most experienced viewers, but for those with a fondness for gothic romance there is a great deal to appreciate and respect about Del Toro’s loving treatment of it here.

For all the nostalgia at play, Del Toro’s take on the centuries-old genre is still decidedly modern. Firstly, the gore is consistent with today’s tastes. Del Toro doesn’t let the camera look away from the more uncomfortable and brutal acts of violence, shown in patient, painful detail. Secondly, Del Toro reverses traditional gender roles where men can now be the weak and manipulated sex and women can be dominant, smart, and capable of saving themselves. Gothic romance generally emphasized the female perspective, illuminating fears of patriarchy. Crimson Peak does this too and attempts to infuse its female character with a strong dignity. All in all, it becomes that rare breed of horror film, in a genre dominated by boyish sensibilities, which seeks to attract and focus upon the perspective of the female audience.

The cast is solid, particularly the macabre siblings Sir Thomas Sharpe and Lady Lucille Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Hiddleston manages to evoke despicability and sympathy in equal measure, and Chastain is perfectly cold and unhinged.

My lone complaint of the film, and it is one on which much of the film unfortunately relies, is the central character of Edith Cushing. She is thoroughly likable and Mia Wasikowska does a fine job in her portrayal, but she lacks a story arc. The head-strong, intelligent woman we see in the beginning is the same head-strong, intelligent woman we see at the end, albeit bloodier. Her single weakness was the desire for her writing to be accepted, but this plot-line ceases half-way through the film and should have come into some significance before the end. She is a surrogate for the viewer and sometimes feels like little else.

Considering his stellar output, it is not a great criticism to say that Crimson Peak is not Del Toro’s best film. For my money, that is still 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. However, it is thus far his best English language film, and that indeed is saying something. Crimson Peak is Del Toro the auteur returning from his big budget forays, and if those who watch it know what they’re getting into and allow themselves to be swept down the dark, dank corridors of a bygone era, filled with the suffering cries of restless dead and the malicious secrets of the living, the experience is a rewarding one.

Grade: B

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